/ 31 May 2007

The voice of conscience

When Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka visited the Hay Cartagena festival in Colombia earlier this year, in a walled Spanish colonial town on the Caribbean coast, children in the streets instantly thought they recognised the black man with leonine grey hair. But they couldn’t decide whether he was Kofi Annan or Don King. They might not have identified the great Nigerian writer, but they were certainly on to something: Soyinka is surely both pugilist and peacemaker.

Soyinka, who is 72 and won the Nobel literature prize in 1986 — the first African so honoured — has, for several decades, been an abrasive conscience for his country of Nigeria, and for a continent. Obsessed with the “oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it”, he has charted the lethal gulf between legitimate authority and the “power that any goon can seize”. A scourge of successive Nigerian despots and kleptocrats, he was jailed without trial for 28 months in 1967, most of it spent alone in a tomb-like cell, for trying to head off civil war with breakaway Biafra. The ordeal gave rise to his classic prison memoir written on toilet paper, The Man Died (1972), and drove him to self-imposed exile. Thirty years on, he was sentenced to death in absentia for treason under the even more brutal military rule of General Sani Abacha, whose crimes included the hanging of the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.

We meet in a London pub on his way to give a lecture at the Guardian Hay festival at the weekend; and his subject is international culpability over what’s happening in Darfur. Soyinka presided as chief judge at a mock trial last November when Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir was found guilty in absentia of crimes against humanity in Darfur. For the playwright, poet and novelist, who is also an actor-director, the symbolic court was “play-acting, but of a very serious kind”. During the tribunal set up by Genocide Watch, Soyinka heard searing testimony, he says, from “witnesses flown out from southern Sudan, people whose families had been killed, or who had been raped or seen relatives raped or maimed — some broke down. They testified to the war crimes of the Janjaweed [the government’s proxy militia], saying they raided villages and killed Nuba at any time.”

Tracing the abuses to a vestigial legacy of the Arab slave trade that pre-dated transatlantic slavery, and likening the Darfur cause to anti-apartheid, when “non-Africans felt aggrieved by the assault heaped on humanity”, Soyinka says: “This can’t go on. Over two million refugees, and still raids by Janjaweed, backed by the Sudanese government military, with the war spilling into neighbouring countries.” Instead of public indictments and sanctions with teeth, “people make token resolutions. It’s yet another failure. I don’t understand how this can be happening in the 21st century.”

He says that all “hidden atrocities” are revealed eventually, even if many years later. “It all comes to light in the end. So why don’t these would-be Stalins and Hitlers take a leaf from history instead of burdening us with exposing their crimes? Why does it have to happen again and again?”

The repetitions of history, whether as tragedy or farce, have haunted Soyinka’s life and work. I first met him in 1994, when he warned despairingly of impending civil war in Nigeria, after the 1993 elections were annulled, the victorious Moshood Abiola jailed, and power seized by Abacha, the “butcher of Abuja”. In his third volume of memoirs, Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (1994), Soyinka reminded fellow citizens of an earlier “electoral robbery”, in 1965, when he was arrested for holding up a radio station at gunpoint and broadcasting a pirate protest — but acquitted on a technicality. Within months of our meeting, Soyinka’s passport was seized by Abacha’s regime, and he made a perilous escape on a 12-hour motorbike ride across the Benin border.

Punctuated by Nigeria’s political upheavals, our talks have resumed in varied locations, from his literary compatriot Chinua Achebe’s 70th birthday celebrations by New York’s Hudson river, to a couscous joint in Paris, where he ironically toasted an end to exile after Abacha’s unexpected death in 1998. Abiola died mysteriously in prison a month later.

While the actor’s resonant voice now seems fainter, his convictions remain just as firm.

After Nigeria’s interim leader returned his passport “on a gold platter” Soyinka found his welcome “overwhelming. There was amazement at what it meant to others, although, within me, I’d never left Nigeria.”

Unlike his first exile, which entailed “an act of internal severance”, he threw himself into opposition to Abacha’s rule, in which his sons Olaokun and Ilemakin were also active. In You Must Set Forth at Dawn, a volume of memoirs published this month, Soyinka puts his lifelong belief that “justice is the first condition of humanity” down to an “over-acute, remedial sense of right and wrong”.

He has a home in California, and affiliations at Harvard and Nevada universities. There is now a Wole Soyinka chair of drama at Leeds University, where he studied in the 1950s. Yet Soyinka has restored the house in his birthplace of Abeokuta, outside Lagos, built with the Nobel “windfall” only to be colonised by bats in his absence. It is the place, he says, “where I recover myself; it’s me in every way”. His sometimes melancholy new memoir pays tribute to the dead, from Soyinka’s parents to his cousin, Afrobeat star Femi Kuti, and he says he intends to be buried in a cactus patch in the grounds of his house. He still yearns for the freedom to pursue savoured pastimes, from collecting African art and book browsing, to solitary hunting in the forests. (“I ‘take my gun for a walk’ for whatever can be eaten, not for trophies.”)

“Each time I think I’ve created time for myself,” Soyinka says, “along comes a throwback to disrupt my private space.”

This week’s inauguration of Nigeria’s new president, Umaru Yar’Adua, is, for Soyinka, such a throwback. Along with international observers, he deems the recent presidential elections “no elections at all”, so baldly were they rigged. “In some states there were no votes,” he says. “We have videos of police commissioners carting off ballot boxes, and police looking on as thugs carted them off.” Though the outgoing president, Olusegun Obasanjo, ended military rule in 1999, Soyinka sees his rule as “civilian dictatorship”. He has now “made himself life chairman of the ruling party to dictate policies”, he says.

In his memoir he blames Obasanjo — also from Abeokuta — for betraying him in the run-up to the civil war, landing him in jail. Yet far from holding a grudge, Soyinka now wonders if he bent too far backwards not to criticise Obasanjo, “for fear that it might be thought I was still angry. I’m friends with [Yakubu] Gowon [the former military ruler who jailed him]. I suspect there’s a missionary streak in me as the inheritor of my parents.” His schoolteacher father, “Essay”, and the mother he called “Wild Christian” are depicted in his early memoirs, Ake (1981) and Isara (1989).

He initially saw Obasanjo as a “practical stopgap — a soldier who had been ‘civilianised’ by prison and given a death sentence against which the nation rose on his behalf.” Yet once in power, “he built a one-party dictatorship by force majeure”. In his second term, after disputed elections in 2003, “he installed a reign of thugs; political assassinations reached a peak never witnessed before. There were crimes and killings. When they realised they had a monster on their hands, he tried to manipulate the Constitution to give himself a third term. The money to bribe legislators amounted to billions of naira.” Yet for Soyinka it was a defining moment when “the legislature refused to buckle. It provided a modicum of hope.”

Any dictator, secular or theocratic, “merely implants the seeds of eventual rebellion,” he believes. Soyinka belongs to Nigeria United For Democracy, a “temporary coalition”. As recently as 2004 he was teargassed and arrested while on a protest march against arbitrary police powers, though he was released within hours. “The police insist they have the authority to decide who walks the streets,” he says. “How can they decide whether I can protest against government policy or not? It’s unacceptable. If they say I need a police permit I’ll tear it up.”

In his 2004 Reith lectures, published as Climate of Fear, Soyinka quoted a Yoruba saying, “Sooner death than indignity”, and he sees dignity as simply “another face of freedom”. Probing the “psychopathology of the zealot” (“I am right, you are dead”), he says the “lunatic fringe”, in both state power and resistance to it, must be watched. In his view, Bush, like Obasanjo, believes in a direct hotline to God. “He says, ‘We don’t care about recognition from the world if God approves.’ It’s an extreme fundamentalism of the most dangerous kind — and it has led to Iraq.” As for Tony Blair: “It was Blair who spearheaded Nato’s involvement in Kosovo on behalf of Muslims battered by the Serb government. Blair acted as a man of principle — to give credit where it’s due. Unfortunately, he got carried away by the moral authority he had acquired, failing to recognise George Bush as a fundamentalist of a different kind.”

Soyinka sees Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe as “the latest King Baabu of the African continent” — an allusion to his 2002 play, a satire about a fictional but recognisable tyrannical general called Basha Bash. On Darfur, he hopes that not only will Arab and African countries alike pull their weight, but China will reverse its support for Sudan’s government as the Beijing Olympics approach.

“One’s own self-worth is tied to the worth of the community to which one belongs, which is intimately connected to humanity in general,” he says.

“What happens in Darfur becomes an assault on my own community, and on me as an individual. That’s what the human family is all about”. — Â