The Writer and the Tyrant

You Must Set Forth at Dawn

by Wole Soyinka
Random House, 499 pp., $26.95
Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka; drawing by David Levine

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:


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