Wole Soyinka’s Full and Wholesome Harvest

Postscript by Waziri Adio

In early July 1994, a group led by late Chief Bola Ige and Mr. Odia Ofeimun put together a week-long and an elaborate series of events at the National Theatre, Lagos, featuring staged plays, book readings, seminars, live music and exhibitions, tagged ‘The Soyinka Festival.’ The festival was organised to mark the 60th birthday of the man it was named after and to celebrate his prodigious creativity and contributions to literature and culture.

However, the man being celebrated declined to attend or to associate with the festival because he said ‘a noxious cloud’ had settled on the country, which made it difficult for him to find a justification to celebrate his first landmark birthday after achieving global acclaim.

On 24th July 1994, the man organised and led a different kind of event. It was called ‘A Walk for Justice,’ a march on the streets of Lagos against the early signs of what would become the most brutal episode of military dictatorship in Nigeria. He walked past the security officers that had come to stop him, and led a group of marchers from Yaba to Tafawa Balewa Square, where he dramatically brought out and smashed his national honour, declaring that no one deserved a national honour in a country with no justice.

Some of the marchers were tear-gassed around Oyingbo. One of the marchers who inhaled the noxious gas was Tai Solarin, the social critic who was 78 at the time but had decided to come out to ‘walk a step of two’ with his younger ally. Solarin, who was asthmatic, was later taken to a hospital where he was treated and discharged. But two days after, the septuagenarian fell while descending the steps of his austere home in Ikenne, Ogun State, and was declared dead at the hospital. The lead marcher visited the widow and the two children of his fallen comrade, paid a special tribute at the grave in an open field, and vowed not to give up the fight.

He did not.

Four months later, the 60-year-old had to flee the country on a motorbike and in a disguise as agents of the murderous regime closed in on him. In exile—the second time he would be forced to leave his beloved homeland—he became a major torn in the flesh of the General Sani Abacha government, writing, speaking, marching, leveraging his global status and rich diction against the regime to devastating result. Even in exile, he had to move about in disguise and had to constantly watch his back. The junta later charged and tried him for treason, in absentia, and sentenced him to death.

The events that I have relayed above, largely from my recollection as a reporter who covered some of these events, are just a few slices from the sacrificial life of Professor Oluwole Akinwande Soyinka who will turn 90 on Saturday, 13th July. It can be argued that there is still not much to celebrate about Nigeria, even when whatever is going on today pales considerably when compared to the climate of repression of three decades ago. (It needs to be said that the space we have today is made possible by the enormous sacrifice borne by people like Soyinka.)

There is definitely something to celebrate about turning 90 in a country where life expectancy is 56 years. And definitely, there is a lot to celebrate because this is not just another random person that is one the few lucky ones to live till 90. This is Wole Soyinka, a man who has dedicated most of his art and life to fighting the good cause when he could conveniently have kept to his craft or just minded his business or even collaborated with the ruiners of the land, as many did at the period, and found convenient justifications for. (And it must be said that the majority did not put their lives and livelihoods on the line and did not have to be in the line of fire of military dictators. Even Abacha wasn’t going after everyone, a reason why most Nigerians didn’t bear the brunt and some of them and their offsprings do not appreciate what those on the frontline went through and some even long for the return of the military.)

Minding his business or sitting on the fence would have been unlike Soyinka. It would have been distinctly out of character. So, it is fitting to toast a man who has put his prodigious talent and agency at the service of society and is blessed, despite the heavy cost of the exertions, to live to 90 and is still on his feet.

Writing is his main vocation, and through this he has brought critical global acclaim to himself, his country and to the black race. There are very few artists—living or dead—as rounded as our own WS. Playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, actor, director, filmmaker, memoirist, translator and even singer/song writer (‘I Love My Country’, released with Tunji Oyelana and the Benders in 1983), Wole Soyinka has an artistic range that eludes most. His real forte, however, is drama. This is where he towers above the rest. It is difficult to find anyone who comes close to him either in the country or on the continent in terms of output, versality and aesthetic depth.

He has dozens of plays ranging from radio plays like Camwood on the Leaves; to the plays easy enough to make it to secondary school literature reading lists like The Trial of Brother Jero, The Lion and the Jewel, Jero’s Metamorphosis; to adaptations of Western and Greek classics like Opera Wonyosi and Bacchae of Euripides; to satirical plays like Kongi’s Harvest, Madmen and Specialists, Before the Blackout, and A Dance of the Forests (which was also the official independence play in 1960); to artistic and philosophical plays like The Road, The Swamp Dwellers, The Strong Breed; and to his timeless classic, Death and the King’s Horseman. 

His prose, especially his novels, is not the most accessible to the average reader, but Soyinka is primarily a playwright with poetic sensibilities. In 1986 when he became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Nobel Committee broke the news this way: “This year’s Nobel Prize in literature goes to an African writer, Wole Soyinka (from Nigeria) …who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence… He has a large and richly varied literary production behind him and is in his prime as an author.”

If the decision to award him the Nobel Prize rested on one work (the prize is usually for a body of work), then it has to be the one described by the Nobel committee as follows: “Death and the King’s Horseman is in the nature of an antique tragedy with the cultic sacrificial death as theme. The relationship between the unborn, the living and the dead, to which Soyinka reverts several times in his works, is fashioned here with very strong effect. Soyinka confirms his position as a centre of force in drama.”

Given Soyinka’s virtuosity in drama, it is understandable that some of his acolytes call him our own WS (for William Shakespeare which anyway shares same first letters with Wole Soyinka). Post-Nobel, Soyinka has been busy writing plays, essays, memoirs, poems, articles and letters. But he has always shared his dedication to his arts with persistent struggles for freedom, justice and progress in Nigeria and beyond. (Beyond Abacha, he gave grief to other African dictators like Mobutu and Bokassa). For Soyinka, it is not enough for the artist to produce profound and socially-conscious art, the artist must also be personally involved.

Here too, it is difficult to find many artists who have taken on the mantle of activism and put their freedoms, livelihoods and even their lives at risk as much as Soyinka has done. At some point, some may be misled to actually think that Soyinka got the highly coveted Nobel for his activism. Of course, some of his actions, statements and choice of words stir controversies. But he cannot be accused of not taking a public and sometimes dangerous position on issues dear to him.

In 1965, when he was a 31-year-old, there was the mystery gunman that replaced the recorded tape of the premier of Western Region, for which he was detained and charged but set free for want of ironclad evidence. At the beginning of the civil war two years later, he undertook a perilous journey to the breakaway Eastern Region to attempt to avert a full-blown war and the death and destruction to follow, an endeavour for which he was arrested and put in solitary confinement for two years. He went on self-exile between 1971 and 1975.

His 1983 album and two of his books (The Man Died and Requiem for a Futurologist

were banned at some point. His house and possessions were thrashed by those that Abacha had sent after him. It is conceivable that those who shot Alhaja Kudirat Abiola on the streets of Lagos, killed Pa Alfred Rewane in his bedroom, shot Chief Alex Ibru, a serving minister, and shot at Pa Abraham Adesanya were not planning just a courtesy call on the Nobel Laureate. They probably would have made an attempt on his life too if he had not had a quick conversation with his legs.  

Wole Soyinka has given more than his fair share not just to the development of arts and letters but also to the unending quest for a good society. He has the Nobel to show for his first preoccupation but physical and psychological scars to show for the latter. Unfortunately, Nigeria has remained stubbornly far from the good society. But that is not because Soyinka has not done his bit and is not because his generation, contrary to his famous expression is wasted one. Fashioning and sustaining the good society will always be a work-in-progress.

For about seven decades, Soyinka has been at the barricade. That’s more than enough sacrifice for one man. It is left for the rest of us to keep pushing the boundaries, in our various ways. As the cancer survivor, hunter, wine connoisseur, author, activist and national treasure joins the rare club of nonagenarians, he deserves our special felicitation and gratitude. He has mine.

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