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The Writer and the Tyrant

The first pages of the book find Wole Soyinka returning to his country in 1998, after years of exile during the blood-drenched dictatorship of Sani Abacha. For so long frantically active as an organizer of resistance to the Abacha regime, he feels suddenly drained of feeling. “Surely it is not the same white-haired monster, the same ‘wanted’ man with a price on his head, hunted the world over, who is headed home….” As the Lufthansa plane crosses the Sahara toward Nigeria, he reflects on the dead who will not be there to greet him, on his lost parents and comrades, on President-elect Abiola who was poisoned in prison a month after Abacha died.

But above all, he feels the loss of his superb friend Femi Johnson. In many ways, his book is Femi Johnson’s elegy, a memorial to this loyal and loving giant—his laughter as big as his appetite—who saved and protected Soyinka through his triumphs and disasters and who said of him, unforgettably, that “you can leave your heart with Wole and travel to Hong Kong. When you come back, it would still be beating.” Kneading those words as a writer does, Soyinka turns them into a commandment “to keep the heart of a nation, of a people, beating, even after a demented dictator had ripped it out.”

In our times, no American or European writer since Alexander Solzhenitsyn would dare to lay claim to such priestly authority. But titans stand with their feet in the past, and Soyinka’s place in Nigeria is best compared to that of European “national” bards of the nineteenth century, to Peto?fi in Hungary or Mickiewicz in Poland. Comparisons with a more remote past—the Roman Empire—will also help readers to imagine the Nigeria in which Soyinka lived so dangerously and to understand his complicated relationships with the personalities who ruled it. A Roman intellectual might have thought Tiberius tyrannical but possibly susceptible to good arguments for leniency, whereas Nero or Caligula could only contaminate anyone who reasoned with them. Nigeria’s military rulers, from General Gowon through General Abacha to General—now President—Obasanjo, differed in much the same ways. Some were ignorant soldiers brought to supreme power by their own greed and savagery, while others—between executions of often imaginary plotters—longed to be accepted as partners in high conversations about literature and the mind.

No Nigerian ruler could afford to overlook an intellectual of Soyinka’s stature. All the dictators, even Abacha, made overtures to him. Some of their invitations to talk were accepted, and Soyinka from time to time sought them out to ask for support for some social or cultural scheme, or to beg mercy for their victims. He has been criticized for this. In his excellent study of the writer,* Biodun Jeyifo points out that Soyinka was a risk-taker both artistically and politically, and that some of those risks involved ethical choices. Jeyifo writes:

Most controversially, in the mid-1980s Soyinka, in line with a small minority of progressives in the country, developed a partiality for the dictator, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida [1985–1992], praising his openness to radical ideas….

That particular “partiality” did not survive long. It ended when Babangida promised the writers J.P. Clark, Chinua Achebe, and Soyinka himself that he would spare the lives of General Mamman Vatsa and his companions, condemned for plotting, and then had them shot three hours later. But in this book Soyinka belligerently defends his “dinings with the devil.” He resolves the “dilemma” of cooperating with such regimes by making it a test of his own character:

It boils down, ultimately, to one’s personal confidence in determining the length of spoon with which one dines with the devil and one’s ability to keep a firm hold on it. This involves deriving no advantages, no gains, no recompense… for the attainment of a fixed and limited goal, retaining one’s independence of action. Most delicious of all is the ability to walk away from the dinner table, flinging a coin onto it as a tip for the host.

Others may suggest that more is at stake at such dinners than one man’s self-esteem. And Soyinka himself agrees, going on to talk of concessions that can be obtained by those “who insist on inhabiting the real world.” Defiantly, he ends:

For a temperament such as mine, it has never been possible to shunt aside…a sense of rebuke of how much is lost daily, wasted or degraded, how much proves irretrievable, damaged beyond repair, through maintaining a position that confers the self-righteous comfort of a purist: nonnegotiable distancing.

He draws the line at what he calls “the murdering regimes”: no dialogue would have been tolerable with Idi Amin, the Emperor Bokassa, Sergeant Doe, Mobutu of Zaire—or General Sani Abacha.

But, he admits, his tastes as a writer also drew him to some of the Nigerian autocrats. General Olusegun Obasanjo has zigzagged through Nigerian history for forty years: first as a regional commander, then as a military dictator, then as a prisoner under sentence of death, and finally—as he remains today—as a civilian president chosen by murky elections. Back in the late 1960s, Soyinka only just escaped with his life when Obasanjo betrayed a confidence in order to save his own skin, and yet “we remain—albeit qualified—friends.” After all, what a subject!

Observing, and even interacting at close quarters, with someone who is completely without scruples is, frankly, irresistible…. It could be a case of letting one’s writer’s instinct take one too far, but, perverse though it may seem, I have remained genuinely fascinated by a complex figure who is convinced that he dominates his environment…but who is, basically, a fortunate recipient of the largesse of fate.

Later, Soyinka loftily admits to assuming that

as a writer, I had proprietary rights over such a phenomenon, and since he was already indebted to me by an act of treachery on his part, I began to regard him as a private preserve for compensatory study. In any case, Obasanjo is quite personable—much of the time—and it was not difficult to respond to his evident desire for cerebral company….

Such condescension is a bit ungrateful. Through Obasanjo he had a lot of fun. In one of the brilliant, sustained anecdotes that decorate this book, Soyinka tells the story of how, with Obasanjo’s encouragement, he set out to steal back for Nigeria one of the missing Ife heads. These cast-bronze sculptures are the masterpieces of early West African art, and the head in question represented Olokun, one of the mythic progenitors of the Yoruba nation to which Soyinka belongs. Through a chain of wild misunderstandings, he became convinced that the head—dug up and removed by the German archaeologist Leo Frobenius—had ended up in Brazil, in the Bahia home of a collector.

Backed by an Obasanjo task force, Soyinka traveled to Brazil and burgled the head, only to discover when he got back to Africa that it was a clay copy faintly marked with the letters “BM”—a souvenir purchased for a few pounds from the British Museum shop. Unwilling to give up the chase, Soyinka went on to London where—as anyone could have told him—he found the original bronze head in the Museum of Mankind. Charming his way into the conservation cellar, he actually held “Ori Olokun” in his hands but resisted the impulse to bolt into the streets with it. The young woman curator who let him handle it was too pretty; she would be in too much trouble. “The moment I held that bronze weight in my hands, I knew, with every strand of intuition, that we had reached the end of the trail. Too many cooks now had their ladles in this broth.” (All true? It’s a typical Soyinka tale, enriched with re-imagined dialogue and farcical detail. As for the Ife heads, there are quite a few of them around the world, some fake and some of the very best still missing.)

Episodes like this are hung around the central narrative, which doubles back on itself confusingly in flashbacks. But the narrative deserves to be unwound for inspection. Wole Soyinka is one of the most prolific writers of his times. Only an extraordinary, almost megalomaniacal spirit could have combined such an output with thirty years of almost continuous political warfare.

In the 1950s, Soyinka was a student in London (the Royal Court staged his first play there in 1959). He belonged to a generation of African students who dreamed of enlisting in a “Continental” international brigade, which would one day march to liberate apartheid South Africa. To gain military training, he joined a university “officer cadet corps,” but deserted when he was called up to serve in the British armed forces invading Egypt in 1956. Soon he and his comrades concluded that “the writers’ and artists’ brigade would have to wait.” A more urgent task was to use their literary gifts to challenge the greedy, repressive politicians who were about to take over Africa as it emerged from colonial rule.

Returning to Nigeria, Soyinka greeted independence in 1960 with a play, A Dance of the Forests, which satirized Nigeria’s new leaders and was pulled from the official celebration program. In the next few years, as a lecturer at the University of Ife, he became involved in the turmoil of conspiracy and repression that gripped the old “Western Region,” the Yoruba homeland. Meanwhile, as an African writer with a growing reputation, he traveled and made illustrious contacts. In London, he marched with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, got to know Bertrand Russell, and was adopted by Joan Littlewood, the foul-mouthed theatrical genius of Stratford East. In Paris, he was embraced by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (its CIA links still unrevealed) and was invited to the United States. It was a grand time to be an African intellectual, as every country in the cold war, West or East, competed to flatter and entertain black writers. In Venice, at a literary conference, he fell in with Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden, who teased Peggy Guggenheim by introducing him as a wealthy African prince on a world tour.

Back in Nigeria, a grossly rigged election in 1965 was about to install S.L. Akintola as premier of the Western Region. At a dinner in a friend’s house, Soyinka suddenly made the decision to act. Carrying a gun, he entered the broadcasting studios at Ibadan, where he forced the staff to give him the tape of Akintola’s victory speech and play his own: “Drop your stolen mandate, leave town….” He was charged with “armed robbery” (of a tape), but the trial collapsed amid popular rejoicing.

The following year, Nigeria suffered a series of bloody coups and counter-coups. The fragile tribal balance of the state fell apart, and as General Yakubu Gowon took power, pogroms against Igbo minorities broke out all over the country. The Igbo fled back to their homeland in the Eastern Region, where the governor, Odomegwu Ojukwu, was preparing the secession of an independent Biafra. Outraged by the pogroms, Soyinka worked desperately to avert civil war. In the name of a “Third Force,” organized to prevent the conflict, he set off on a perilous journey to reason with Ojukwu. He failed, and Biafran troops led by Victor Banjo crossed the Niger River to seize the Mid-Western State. But Banjo met Soyinka, on the eve of the offensive, and entrusted him with a secret mission—secret, not least, from Ojukwu. He was to go back to the other side, contact General Obasanjo as commander of the Western military district, and urge him to join Banjo in overthrowing the Gowon regime and constructing a new Nigeria.

  1. *

    Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics and Postcolonialism (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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