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Wole Soyinka: Straight Talking

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Wole Soyinka: Straight Talking

JP O’Malley meets up with Wole Soyinka, the rather elusive literary-great to, ostensibly, discuss his new book, Of Africa, but their conversation took a few necessary detours. In this exclusive interview for New African, the outspoken Nobel Literature laureate does not mince his words on a range of issues on Africa. From Boko Haram’s “ideology of death” to why there is “no such thing as African culture”.

Wole Soyinka has the energetic zest, and looks, of a man who is far younger than his 78 years. Trying to track him down was a lengthy process. It took weeks of contacting several people who might know the whereabouts of the distinguished Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist, and political spokesman, and after several correspondents, I finally received an email from the missing man in question. He informed me he was waiting at Beijing airport, leaving for Lagos. Then it was on to Rio de Janeiro, and back to Los Angeles: where he is currently Professor in Residence at Loyola Marymount University. With an eight-hour hiatus in London, he suggested we catch up for a coffee at the Hilton Hotel in Paddington Station. Soyinka’s new book is a 200-page polemic that attempts to understand the contradictory nature of African politics, both in the colonial, and post-colonial period.

Written in the style of an elaborate academic essay, it seeks to ask questions rather than answer them, and to explore issues, not to magically solve them.

Two very pertinent questions that arise from Soyinka’s book are: What is Africa? And what do we understand of its history?

Even the very construct of Africa itself, Soyinka explains, is false: “The simple idea of Africa as a collection of nations is total fiction. These nations are not real. The Berlin Conference of 1884/85 – where a continent was shared piecemeal amongst the Western powers – is a good example of this. People even speak of ‘African culture’: there is no such thing. Of course there is African cultures, and you can have a synthesis of that.”

“It’s easier for powerful elites to just have this idea of a marshmallow continent, where you can push around these ideas, and make people choose one side or the other. In the Cold War this happened all the time. Africa was being made to choose between East and West. I’ve never understood that,” he tells New African.

In a chapter entitled “Children of Herodotus”, Soyinka refers to Africa as “the monumental fiction of European creativity”. One needs only to look at the country of his birth to illustrate this point. When the British fixed the borders of Nigeria in 1914, little effort was made to facilitate an integration process for the hundreds of tribes that existed in the region.

When a state is built upon a foundation of fiction, trying to maintain a semblance of stability is both farcical and illogical, says Soyinka.

“The intensity that these borders are often defended with – even at the expense of development, peace, and humanity – always strikes me as absurd. Why do those who have gained their self-governance, accept as sacrosanct, what has been bequeathed to them by others who had no interest in Africans to begin with? This contradiction, which states: borders must never be tampered with. It’s costing the African continent dearly,” he adds.

The coffee hasn’t arrived yet, but the small talk has already been brushed aside for hard political rhetoric.

In an article that was published on the Reuters website, three days before we meet, Soyinka proclaimed that President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, should not, under any circumstances, enter into dialogue with the fundamentalist, sect Boko Haram. The militant Islamist group – which has killed over 3,000 civilians in a ruthless violent campaign since 2009 – wants to establish a Muslim theocracy in Africa’s largest country.

Recently it put forward a proposal for peace talks with the Nigerian government, on the strict condition that the meeting be held in Saudi Arabia: it’s here that the militant group has met with senior al-Qaida figures in recent years, to collaborate on other violent atrocities – including the attack on the UN building in Abuja in August 2011.

Soyinka labels the terrorist group as a “psychopathic criminal gang”. Entering into dialogue with drug lords and criminals, he maintains, serves no purpose.

“Boko Haram are Mullahs, with an ideology of death. For them, the most normal thing in the world is to say: we don’t want schools to exist. To show they mean business, they walk into classrooms, call out students by name, and kill them.

“This is something new in Nigeria. It even took a while for the president to catch on. In this regard, the Nigerian government has failed abysmally in dealing with these terrorists,” he adds.

Soyinka admits that talking to organisations that call themselves freedom-fighters is sometimes just an unfortunate reality of politics. He cites MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) as an example of a group that has some legitimate causes. However, with Boko Haram, there are no negotiations on the table, Soyinka claims.

“Boko Haram is a violent machine created by people who are out of control. There is only one thing to do: destroy that machine otherwise they will destroy you. Their only manifesto is to Islamise Nigeria. It’s their way or no way. That is what I don’t understand, what this dialogue is about.”

Soyinka spends considerable effort in his book discussing how the nihilist nature of fundamentalist Islam is destroying societies in certain African nations: particularly in Somalia, Mali, and Nigeria.

The speed of this phenomenon, he argues, has enabled religion to move from a luxury of mere abstraction, to the forefront of global concern: one that unleashes a wave of vicious violence, across the fabric of the many nations it pervades. Looking for a logical explanation amid this chaos, Soyinka equates the rise of religion, exclusively with power.

“The reason religious fundamentalism exists is simple: because it has been profitable for many people, especially those who seek power to dominate. It is used as a form of brainwashing. Fortunately, those who activate these extreme functions of religion, find themselves being eaten up by the forces they have unleashed.

“I may sound bloodthirsty when I say this, but there is definitely some kind of population control taking place within the ranks of religious fundamentalists. Therefore you may see it attenuated, but it can never be completely destroyed,” adds Soyinka. The African-American sociologist, W. E. B. Du Bois, predicted several decades ago, that the crises of race in the 20th century would be replaced by religion in the 21st. Soyinka believes that Du Bois’ statement should be elevated to a further question: Can religion peacefully cohabit with secularism as religious fanaticism increases in the Islamic world?

In other words, can humanism cohabit with religion without bloodshed? By delving into the recent past, we can clearly distinguish an answer to this question, Soyinka believes.

“This only became an issue because some power-seeking politicians recognised that, just as they used ethnicity to rise to prominence, religion was also a very obliging tool for ascension to power. There are places where secularism and religion have existed side by side, it even happened in Nigeria. But it will take a while. Once religion has been allowed a foothold, it’s always difficult to go back to the status quo.”

Soyinka’s outspoken remarks over the need for complete separation between church and state, has caused some offence in the recent past: not just to those on the African continent. In an interview he gave to the American website, the Daily Beast, in 2010, Soyinka claimed that England was a “cesspit”, and a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalists. One should not mistake the need to recognise human rights, as the condemnation of private religious practice, says Soyinka. “People confuse my secularism with a hate for religion. What I’m really saying is this: your religion has no place in secular business. So could you please restrict your religion to matters of spirituality, between you and God? But these fundamentalists will never allow that correct interpretation to begin.”

Soyinka’s tendency to speak about political matters – viscerally rather than carefully – in Nigeria, has resulted in several long spells of exile, and a stint in prison on one occasion. In January 1966, a military coup saw Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo from the Eastern Region, ascend to power. In a counter-coup that July, Ironsi was killed, and succeeded by Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon from the country’s middle-belt. As the political turmoil increased in 1967, more than a million Igbo refugees fled mainly from the North, to the south-east of Nigeria. At this stage, many on the Igbo side began calling for secession.

Predicating that further violence could be avoided, Soyinka travelled – secretly – to engage in dialogue with the secessionist, General Ojukwu: trying to seek a peaceful resolution. When Ojukwu, and the Eastern forces then proclaimed an independent Republic of Biafra, Soyinka made contact with General Obasanjo – from the Western forces – attempting to reach an agreement on the conflict.

But Obasanjo’s loyalties lay with the federal forces. As the civil war ensued, the federal forces accused Soyinka of siding with the Biafrans, and he was imprisoned.

For 22 months, Soyinka was kept in solitary confinement. Even though he was denied access to pen or paper, he improvised writing materials, and smuggled Idanre and Other Poems, which were published internationally, while he was still imprisoned. Maintaining sanity is the biggest challenge one faces when isolation occurs for such a lengthy period, he says.

“One of the worst things that you can do to a human being is to put them in long isolation. We all need it – to some extent – but we also should decide when we want to be alone. When it’s imposed on you, and you don’t even see a prospect of a break – especially the kind of isolation that deprives you of books or means of writing – then you are prone to fantasies. Reality begins to transform itself in rather dangerous ways.”

Creating and solving puzzles was a pastime that Soyinka became very adept at during this period. Any activity to keep the mind active is a worthwhile exercise in this situation, he says. “It helped that I hated mathematics when I was in school, but now I was able to go back to it, and create problems in my head and scribble them down on the ground. So all those exercises helped. But long periods of isolation are not good for human beings. It can lead the mind in various directions, which are hard to cope with it.”

When the civil war ended in January 1970, an amnesty was proclaimed for all political prisoners. Soyinka dedicated his life again to work: travelling initially to the South of France to write The Bacchae of Euripides: a reinterpretation of the Greek myth; and then on to London, where he completed Poems from Prison. It would be 1975 until Soyinka returned to his native land again. His decision to stay in exile during this period was primarily to try and escape the mindset of the civil war politics.

“I needed a period of detachment at that time,” says Soyinka “and also the triumphalist atmosphere around me, at the end of the civil war – where the federal side won – it was just something that I found most upsetting and degrading: the lack of thought; the senselessness of the war in the first place; the millions who perished, and the children who were destroyed, or brain-damaged.

“There seemed to be a consciousness of that absent all around me. So I just wanted to stay away for some time, until that triumphalism had dissipated.”

In 1986 Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, thus becoming the first black African man (Albert Camus being the first white African in 1957) to win the prestigious prize. His speech, entitled This Past Must Address Its Present, was dedicated to Nelson Mandela, who was still captivated in a South African prison cell at the time. Today, Soyinka describes Mandela as the one property that Africa can boast about.

“Mandela is almost like a one-man principality in terms of ethics, ideas, and heroism. How many heads of state do we have that voluntarily withdraw from office after one term only? On many levels Mandela is a very rare human being.”

The publishing of The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, in 1996, saw Soyinka being formally charged with treason by the Abacha government in Nigeria. By the time the charge had been made in 1997, Soyinka had already fled Nigeria, this time to the United States. While his initial exile after the civil war was voluntary, the second period caused him much anguish. Nevertheless he was fully committed to the dethronement of the Abacha dictatorship. The book that caused so much controversy looks at the tumultuous twists and turns of Nigerian history; its unstable political system; as well as trying to explain the nation’s preference for the military coup, over the ballot box, as a favoured method of bringing about government.

It also poses a valid question – that can be applied not just to Nigeria, but to any country on earth – about what defines a nation: is it a condition of the collective mind, or something that is a result of historical forces, or even geographical boundaries?

My hour with Wole Soyinka is finally up. Before we part, I leave him with a difficult question. It is one that he asked himself, and it may just be the reason he was expelled from his homeland.

So has he come to any definite conclusions about what makes a nation, and does such an entity even exist? Soyinka doesn’t seem to have reached a definite conclusion on the matter yet.

“To begin with I’m not sentimental about nations. In terms of conceiving oneself as part of a nation, what does it mean to exclude others who share cultural values, and history of economic interaction, similarity, and sometimes identity? Why should such people be cut off: for what purpose? I really believe that nationhood and nationalism are suspect concepts.”

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