The first African to receive a Nobel prize for literature in 1986, Wole Soyinka built his name on biting political satires. As he turned 80 this week, amid a deepening sectarian crisis in Nigeria, his lifetime of often incendiary commentary offers a window into pervasive corruption that has buffeted Africa’s most populous nation.
One of Soyinka’s earliest works, A Dance of the Forest, was penned to herald Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. Performed in the then capital Lagos, the play was a stark warning to Nigerian society that it would be condemned to repeating previous mistakes if it didn’t reflect honestly on its past.
The warning wasn’t heeded. A few years later, Africa’s giant lurched from political crisis to civil war as Igbo secessionists attempt to carve an independent republic of Biafra. For his attempts to broker a peace deal, Soyinka was thrown into solitary confinement for two years by the Nigerian military government. Jail time was a distinction he shared with his cousin, the Afrobeat star and anti-Establishment agitator Fela Kuti.
Fast forward 50 years. As the country celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence in 2010, an inability to learn from the past was still playing out. Nigeria, Soyinka pointed out, was still held to ransom by politicians, many of whom had simply swapped guns for civilian garb.
“It’s a spiral. It’s a cyclic thing. You go into power, steal money and you use that money to perpetuate yourself in power so you have to steal more money,” he said bluntly, describing the political elite as “a wealth cartel to protect one another, to scratch one another’s back, to support one another in order to retain power”.
Then this January, the author, who sports a distinctive white Afro and beard, was due to receive an award as the government celebrated the country’s creation 100 years after British colonialists cobbled northern and southern protectorates together. But when Soyinka noticed former military dictator Sani Abacha was also on the honours list, out came the ever-ready barbs.
“We are speaking here of a man who placed this nation under siege during an unrelenting reign of terror that is barely different from the current rampage of Boko Haram,” he said, before very publicly rejecting the award.
In an acidic letter titled The Canonisation of Terror, he said the refusal of successive governments to rename streets in the nation’s capital bearing Abacha’s name pointed to an inability “to muster the temerity to wipe out the memory of the nation’s tormentor from daily encounter”.
It’s a message Soyinka hasn’t stopped trying to drum home despite turning 80: the relentless corruption inflicted on Nigeria’s citizens, who appear to have internalised it to the point of banalisation.
“We’re being given the same work to do over and over again. It is boring, condescending and insulting,” he said last year of the job facing those who still have the energy to agitate against corruption and bad governance.
Turning 80 hasn’t dimmed his acerbic take on the current state of affairs. The “Boko Haramism,” as he calls the Nigerian culture, extended to ordinary citizens who engage in violent sectarian actions that authorities turn a blind eye to.
Worse, the cycle of violence unleashed by the Islamist sect Boko Haram has eclipsed that of the 1967-1970 Biafra war in which a million people died, he said. The insurgents’ five-year battle to impose an Islamic caliphate on religiously mixed Nigeria has seen them raze entire villages, force boys into their ranks and burn schoolchildren alive. The sect has most recently been in the global spotlight for their mass abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in April.
The conflict’s growing intensity has led Nigerian commentators to predict it may split the country. But Soyinka, a rarity among Nigerians for his rejection of both Islam and Christianity as “foreign impositions”, said he believed the opposite was true.
“For the first time, a sense of belonging is predominating. It’s either we stick together now or we break up, and we know it would be not in a pleasant way,” he said.
It is certainly this most Nigerian of abilities to hold out for hope to the last, and see it in the most unlikely of places, that has kept Soyinka not only sane but also as sharp as ever – after six decades of campaigning.