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Life and times of a struggle hero

Nigerian writer and courageous political activist Wole Soyinka was the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. A life-long activist, he was tried in 1964 for holding up a radio station in Nigeria (escaping conviction on a technicality) and was jailed for 27 months without trial for visiting the secessionist republic of Biafra during the Nigerian Civil war of 1967 to 1970 (described in his 1972 The Man Died). Between 1994 and 1998 he fled into exile where he became the most articulate critic of the debauched rule of General Sani Abacha (satirised in a 2002 play, King Baabu), and campaigned tirelessly to restore democratic rule to Nigeria. He has produced 11 books, 18 plays and six collections of poetry, and these memoirs document his political activism, while narrating the political history of contemporary Nigeria.

Soyinka has written a gripping 600-page tome to pre-empt future biographers from defining him. The book is elegantly written in crisp prose that is almost poetic in parts. This is a story that is well told of a life well lived; of political activism, creativity, friendships, exile, political drama, the Nobel Prize, and a triumphant homecoming after Abacha’s death in 1998.

Soyinka touchingly devotes much space in the book to his close friendship with effervescent insurance broker and lover of the arts, Femi Johnson, describing his great sense of loss when Johnson died in a German hospital in 1987. He also pays tribute to his first cousin, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Afro-jazz star and social critic who also died in 1987 and whom Soyinka criticises for his lack of political nuance in praising African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Idi Amin and Sékou Touré in the same breath. Soyinka poignantly describes his shock after Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmental campaigner, was brutally hanged by Abacha in 1995.

At Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Soyinka — now a wistful septuagenarian — had thought that he was part of a ‘Renaissance” generation. He eventually came to describe his peers as ‘the lost generation”, and his book is a stinging indictment of how mediocrity and greed have often triumphed over reason and vision in post-independence Nigeria: ‘— power and control remain the plaything of imbeciles, psychopaths and predators”.

Soyinka’s guardian angel is Ogun, the God of iron and the road, in the pantheon of Yoruba deities whose festival is celebrated in his 1965 play, The Road. The title of this book itself seems to describe the painful 47-year-old journey that Nigeria has embarked on since independence. The metaphor of the road seems to be a rousing call to arms for Nigerians to seize the day, and fight the socio-economic and political battles that will allow their country to take its rightful place as Africa’s ‘giant in the sun”.

Soyinka was involved in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle since his student days in England in the 1950s, and dedicated his Nobel Prize to global liberation icon Nelson Mandela. He also published a collection of poems, Mandela’s Earth, in 1989. He describes a meeting in Paris with Mandela in 1990 shortly after his release from jail, and described ‘Madiba” in God-like fashion as ‘my favourite avatar”.

The Nobel laureate also describes other African leaders: he criticises Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni’s intellectually pretentious rambling; and lavishes praise on Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (who won a 90% presidential victory while his main opponent languished in jail).

Soyinka describes the overwhelming impact of the Nobel Prize and the loss of privacy sacrificed to his victory, which led to three lost years of creative writing. He details his passion for hunting and collecting art.

However, the main criticism of these impressive memoirs involves Soyinka’s legendary arrogance, which sometimes makes him appear to be exaggerating his own influence on events. He also sometimes appears inconsistent in his criticisms of Nigeria’s venal political class. Soyinka was a strong defender of Moshood Abiola (winner of the June 1993 election that was annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida’s military regime), who was widely believed in Nigeria to have worked closely with past military regimes to acquire his enormous wealth. The author had also previously disenfranchised himself from the June 1993 election, laying him open to charges of Yoruba chauvinism for belatedly supporting the rights of a fellow clansman.

Soyinka himself notes the criticisms of his ‘loner mentality”: he has often been accused of acting unilaterally rather than as part of a movement. An example was his long silence in criticising the autocratic regime of Babangida (even accepting a job as the head of a road safety corps and dining occasionally with the dictator), until very late in the day. He also describes his complicated relationship with General Olusegun Obasanjo (military and civilian head of state at different periods). Soyinka’s portrait of these powerful figures is fascinating: Babangida is seen as ‘suave, calculating, a persuasive listener — but with sheathed claws”, while Obasanjo is ‘basically insecure, and — pathologically in need of proving himself —”.

One wonders, however, why Soyinka seems to feel the need to ‘dine with devils” — even with a proverbial long spoon — and be close to power, when some of this power is clearly corrupt and abusive. This book could also have done with more thorough fact-checking of names and titles.

But, despite these quibbles, Soyinka has elegantly and fluently sought to define his own political life. A future griot will, however, have the final say, though s/he will not be able to ignore this treasure trove of an inspirational political life well lived.

Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town

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