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:

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.

Soyinka took the message to Obasanjo, who, after waiting to see which way the war would go, duly betrayed him and Banjo to his masters in Lagos. Banjo was eventually shot as a traitor to Biafra. Sinister rumors now gathered around Soyinka, suggesting that he was buying warplanes for Biafra. He prepared to flee abroad, but was arrested in October 1967. Never put on trial, he spent the next two years and four months in prison, most of it in solitary confinement, as the Biafran war slowly burned itself out in starvation and slaughter.


This book omits the prison years, described in Soyinka’s magnificent The Man Died (1972). It starts again with his release in 1969, into a country so crushed by the terror of war and military bullying that he scarcely recognized it: “The norm of citizen sycophancy and self-abasement…had replaced the self-esteem on which we had earlier ridden….” He recalls that “the mood around me appeared to be one of celebration—of victory over a great evil called secession. I now began to feel like a stranger….” Returning to a post as director of the Department for Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan, he found that he could not settle down in this new atmosphere and in 1971 went quietly into a voluntary exile which was to last for four years. Soyinka’s work, especially his plays, was now in demand all over the world. He moved restlessly from one country to another, directing his plays and sometimes acting in them, writing, and teaching. With Dennis Brutus, he set up the Union of Writers of the African Peoples, and became its first secretary-general. In 1974 he settled in Ghana, taking over the editorship of the international African journal Transition.

In Nigeria, General Gowon was evicted by General Murtala Mohammed, who was assassinated a year later and replaced by Soyinka’s ambiguous acquaintance General Obasanjo. Soyinka came back to Nigeria in 1975, beginning almost twenty years of furious literary and political activity. In plays, satirical revues, novels, essays, and lectures to his students, he lacerated the cult of power and corruption around him. A lesser figure might not have survived, but Nigeria’s rulers hesitated to touch him. They writhed under his mockery but—as Soyinka had astutely seen long ago—most of them also craved to be taken seriously, to be seen discussing the mind as equal to equal with the country’s intellectual leader. In 1986, Wole Soyinka was awarded a Nobel Prize, an event that pumped euphoria and self-confidence into Nigerians, much as the election of Karol Wojtyl/a to the papacy had done for the Poles eight years before. He seemed untouchable. But he was not.

In 1993, a long cascade of crises finally brought General Sani Abacha to power. He was a tyrant of a different quality from his predecessor’s, a psychopathic killer and sadist whose program of state terrorism drove Wole Soyinka into flight a year later. The irrepressible Soyinka had tried to organize a “million-man march” against the dictatorship. Nothing came of it, and Abacha’s hounds were close behind him as he crossed the frontier river into Benin. In this book, he has made that night into a lyrical reflection on loss, exile, and human kindness—the dark river, the endless journey down bush paths on the back of a motorcycle, the moments of rest in a village hut where the local god was also visiting in the form of a shaman.

Soyinka was charged with treason in his absence, and Abacha’s murder squads pursued him and his family across several continents. He became the key organizer of overseas opposition and resistance to Abacha, helping to set up Radio Kudirat which broadcast the democratic message into Nigeria. He toured the world like a shuttle diplomat, urging international conferences, presidents, and prime ministers to confront the special horror of this regime. In Auckland, New Zealand, he fought in vain to make the Commonwealth heads of state speak out to save the dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight companions, railroaded to the gallows for their struggle to free the Ogoni people. But even a Nobel laureate was no match for the Shell petroleum company, masters of the Ogoni oil wealth, who, Soyinka writes, advised the conference that Saro-Wiwa’s fate was the fault of irresponsible agitators like Soyinka and his friends. “If ever there was a scripted form of Pontius Pilate washing his hands…this would be its very corporate equivalent!” Only when the executions were over was Nigeria expelled from the Commonwealth.

Abacha died suddenly in 1998 (“in the arms of Asian prostitutes”), as Soyinka was preparing to enter Nigeria in secret to organize armed resistance. The tyranny began to fall apart, but not before the democratically elected candidate for president, M.K.O. Abiola, died—almost certainly poisoned—on the eve of his release from prison. Soyinka finally flew home to an ecstatic popular welcome in September 1998. “I am back in the place I never should have left,” he said.

His supporters urged him to run for the presidency. Wisely, he refused. As this story shows, the years of struggle had taught him lessons about himself, not least about his vulnerability. He had tried to make himself indifferent to loss and insult, but wounds came that hurt terribly. One was the loss of his beloved collection of Yoruba antiquities. When he emerged from prison to find that one of his brothers had sold much of it to an American collector, he was devastated in ways that he knew were irrational: “The collection had been my life, so I felt as if I had been murdered.” It seemed to him at the time that his brother must have wished him to die in prison. Later, he began to blame himself for this loss of self-control. What had become of the state of peace and asceticism that he had achieved in solitary confinement, if material loss felt so violating? Much later, during his second exile, he was deeply upset by a loathsome but absurd pamphlet, the “cynically titled” Conscience International, attacking his personal morals, which the Abacha regime concocted and circulated. “Beneath my outward insouciance—this must be admitted—the contents of that journal drilled a corrosive hole into the most secretive core of my being.”

Anyone else might have shrugged it off. But Soyinka was wounded in his imaginative sense of self. “A total stranger, a doppelgänger with an odious smirk, was being invented between the lurid pages, and I was swamped by this illicit being, this fake persona who dispensed spores of corruption guaranteed to percolate through the most protective layers of society.” All we learn about the contents of this pamphlet is that it “revealed” a supposed illegitimate daughter called Yinka (to rhyme with Soyinka), who was waltzing around the bars of Abeokuta and collecting free drinks in return for her story. So why did it hurt Soyinka so much, when—as he had long known—the Nigerian “propensity…toward the game of character denigration…is all part of a justly remarked creative energy”? The answer might seem to lie in an inner lack of conviction about his own identity, now threatened by an “illicit being, a fake persona.” Significantly, this fit of existential doubt came to a man who was not only a writer of plays but a famous actor (there is a wonderfully funny scene in the book describing how, without a word of French but herded on stage by the pitiless Joan Littlewood, he played Lumumba in a Paris production of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Murderous Angels).

One possession he clung to was his grave. Soyinka constantly refers to the “cactus patch” in Abeokuta where he intends to be buried. When he went into exile, he consoled himself by finding another place to lay his bones: a remote hamlet in the Jamaican hills where the old Orisa gods of Yoruba religion were still remembered, a village whose name, Bekuta, preserved a memory of his own Abeokuta home. But when he returned there, many years later, he found that floods and landslides had swept the place away. He blamed himself for the intensity of his grief. Instead, he resolved to take back the burial place that was truly his own:

My mission in exile became even more personalized—to exploit every second of my living hours toward the retrieval of my cactus patch, but purged definitively of the possibility of a tyrant’s triumphalist tread.

As that story suggests, Yoruba spiritualities matter intimately to Wole Soyinka. Again, there is an echo of imperial Rome: a pantheon of gods and goddesses under the Jovian lordship of Olorun, each with his or her own attributes and supported by a huge cast of nymphs, sybils, shamans, tutelary spirits, and healing priests. As in the Roman world, sophisticated people—generals, professors, or novelists—do not exactly “believe” in the monotheistic sense, but feel attached to some supernatural patron whose reality everyone is free to invent for himself or herself. Propitiation remains a prudent thing to do. Soyinka describes how, in a Chicago theater where rehearsals were plagued with accidents, he once resorted to sacrificing a white cockerel on the stage in the presence of the cast, and sprinkling blood and libations of moonshine around the auditorium.

His own patron is Ogun, a god whose interests include war, iron, and the creative impulse. Soyinka protests, rather archly, that this relationship is under control:

The suggestion that I was possessed quite early in life by the creative-combative deity Ogun is a familiar commentary of some literary critics who stretch my creative fascination with that deity, undeniable in my works, beyond its literary purlieu.

But Ogun has served him well as metaphor and mascot, and has given a mythical cladding to Soyinka’s belief that violence—armed struggle, but never terrorism against the innocent—is sometimes the best argument against tyrants.

In his masterly study of Wole Soyinka, admiring and unsparing at once, Biodun Jeyifo writes about the “Ogunnian” strand in Soyinka’s work. Like the writer, he thinks that critics make too much of it, and that Soyinka himself is aware of the dangers inherent in fitting resurrected warrior-heroes into a contemporary world. But he is worried by the writer’s “unqualified theoretical endorsement of the ‘Ogunnian’ archetype as paradigm of the artist in modern Africa….” Ogun, as mediated by Soyinka, is the embodiment of Will, but also of the patrician and the patriarchal, of a male-dominated world and of a caste superior to the common mass.

Jeyifo argues that “Ogunnianism” places limits on the radicalism in Soyinka’s work. These are “limits of class inflections and a highly gendered world-view indicating a ‘revolution’ from the top down, from a vanguard of male patricians of spirit and will to the world of the degraded, disenfranchised masses.”

This is a shrewd criticism, and passages in this book bear it out. Soyinka constantly speaks of “we,” meaning the loyal band of intellectual supporters—actors, writers, political dreamers, revolutionaries, teachers, and lawyers—that has almost always surrounded him. These circles have protected and encouraged him, providing a willing army of volunteers for his cultural and political schemes, but “patricians of spirit and will” they certainly are. In the same way, Soyinka’s opinion of the “degraded” masses is pessimistic. “No question about it,” he writes about his impressions on leaving prison, “civil society constantly collaborated in its own humiliation.” Earlier in the book, remembering how happy he was as a young man exploring Nigeria by road, he draws a gloomy simile:

In the road’s later decay…is recorded a nation’s retreat from a humanism that I had imbibed, quite unconsciously, from childhood. I was fated to watch the nation turn both carrion and scavenger as it killed and consumed its kind.

So Soyinka is no Rousseau. Man in Africa may have been born free, but one set of chains replaces another, and when they are finally broken, the free man will not be automatically good or wise. But the battle for justice can be fought, and even if one has to take a gun to stop a lie being broadcast, it can be won. Wole Soyinka, whose achievements as writer and warrior are so many that they obscure each other, fights as a “patrician of spirit and will,” the only way he knows. Voltaire was a patrician of that breed. Soyinka, like him, thinks that perhaps his verses can stop the worst before it strikes. He must go on working.

This Issue

June 22, 2006