Writers are citizens

According to Nigerian writer and activist Wole Soyinka, an author's first responsibility is to society.

wole soyinka 88 298 (photo credit: )
wole soyinka 88 298
(photo credit: )
When Nigerian Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka contemplates the role of a writer in society, he defines it in terms of political and social action. In 1965, upset that a politician who had rigged the vote was about to claim victory in a radio broadcast, Soyinka, then 31 and already a famous writer, stormed the radio station armed with a pistol and substituted the politician's tape with one denouncing the usurper. Arrested and charged, Soyinka was acquitted on a technicality. For the writer, poet and playwright, now 73, it was one incident in a long career of politics - interspersed with arrests, spells in jail and years of exile - writing and teaching. "There came that moment when the robbery of the people's voice was about to be legitimized," says Soyinka, recalling the event. "And I happened to be one of maybe three, four, five people who knew. It was a moment when an individual had to take a decision... take stock of yourself and act." Soyinka's most recent arrest was in 2004, when he was taken by police amid swirls of tear gas for participating in a protest in Lagos against president Olusegun Obasanjo's government. He was released without charge hours later. Age has not slowed the writer, whose hoary Afro and matching white beard make him a recognizable face in the literary world. In between lecture tours, a recent residency at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and work at the Black Mountain Institute - the international literature center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas - Soyinka finds time to be in Nigeria every other week. In the US, he attends political meetings, marches and news conferences and issues statements in response to the unfolding political situation. "The writer is first and foremost a citizen and the writer's responsibility is not different from that of a citizen," Soyinka said, nursing a glass of wine in the garden of a Lagos gallery where he came to see an exhibition of Nigerian paintings. For him, the only difference is that the writer can make good use of language. In the recent presidential election, Soyinka backed Pat Utomi, a university professor and candidate of the African Democratic Congress. Utomi, who lost to Obasanjo's hand-picked candidate Umaru Yar'Adua, promised to break with Nigeria's past of corrupt misrule and bring intellectual rigor to government. The April 23 presidential election has been denounced as deeply flawed by international observers and the opposition. Soyinka traces his activist disposition to his childhood in Abeokuta - a hometown he shares with Obasanjo, though the two did not meet until adulthood. In the 1940s, the city's women rose up against taxes imposed by the local chief under British colonial rule. In his much-acclaimed memoirs, Ake: Years of Childhood, Soyinka describes the uprising and the role he played as a messenger for the women, which enabled him to hear the arguments of adults reflecting political and social divisions. He says his subsequent habit of confronting authority had its seeds in that early political education. In his latest book, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, published in 2006, Soyinka recounts the dilemma he faced in 1967 as Nigeria plunged into a secessionist war in the southeastern region that called itself Biafra, pitting rebels against implacable federal authorities in Lagos - then the capital - in the wake of an orgy of sectarian killings that had swept the country. As an informal go-between for elements that sought "a third way" to defuse the tensions, Soyinka approached Obasanjo, a regional military commander at the time. According to the account, his apparent betrayal by Obasanjo resulted in his arrest and detention in solitary confinement for more than two years by the Nigerian military government of the time. Those experiences, which led to his first exile, are documented in his 1972 book, The Man Died. As military ruler in the late 1970s, Obasanjo provided diplomatic cover for an escapade led by Soyinka to Brazil to recover an ancient Yoruba bronze head that was stolen from Nigeria in the 1940s. Soyinka and his companions took what they thought was the head, only to discover it was fake. Their cover was blown by members of Obasanjo's government, and they barely escaped from Brazil without arrest. Meanwhile, the real bronze head was at the British Museum in London. "That madcap episode embarrasses me until this moment," says Soyinka, who is now a bitter critic of Obasanjo, accusing him of dictatorial ambitions. Soyinka had confrontations with another military ruler, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, when the writer tried to set up a road safety corps to help prevent accidents on the country's dangerous highways. He broke with Babangida as his regime grew increasingly authoritarian. Gen. Sani Abacha, who came next, responded to the writer's criticisms by sending a death squad after him. Soyinka fled into exile in 1994, returning only after the dictator's death four years later. Some of Soyinka's critics have accused him of having a fascination for people in power. "Soyinka is evidently obsessed with temporal power," said Adewale Maja-Pearce, a Nigerian writer who has written critical studies of Soyinka. Citing his relationship with Obasanjo and Babangida in particular, Maja-Pearce argues that Soyinka was usually the one diminished by such encounters. The 1986 Nobel literature prize winner - the first black writer to receive the award - insists on the need to engage all classes of Nigerians. "People sometimes take a snobbish attitude, saying we cannot engage on this level because it's not pure enough for us," Soyinka said. "On all levels, humanity is involved. And wherever humanity is involved, that's my constituency."