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Soyinka: 'Obasanjo and me'; Controversy and Prof Wole Soyinka are bedfellows. And he is annoyed with Obasanjo's "lies" about his second coming as president in May 1999. "We've been on a roller coaster since we first met," Soyinka says. "The battle between us came with his second coming as he didn't win it." Uchenna Izundu went to interview Soyinka for New African.

Crisis management is the modus operandi in Nigeria. In one instance, the new president, Umar Musa Yar'Adua, is struggling to control militants attacking oil and gas infrastructure and kidnapping expatriates in the Niger Delta. Flick the switch and his public admission that he is worth N856m to demonstrate that he is fighting endemic corruption has provoked a mixed response amongst the political elite about whether they should do the same.


And, continuously in the background, are the mumblings of discontent from fellow politicians and the public about the legitimacy of Yar'Adua's mandate. Among the arch critics is Prof Wole Soyinka, the first African to win a Nobel Prize for his literary work.

Soyinka has just published his newest memoir, You Must Set Forth At Dawn. He says the presidential election in April this year that brought President Umar Musa Yar'Adua to power is "one of the greatest disasters" to have befallen Nigeria. "It was a pre-determined result, violent and fraudulent," Soyinka insists.

He blames the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, for "appointing" Yar'Adua as his successor. "[Obasanjo] has institutionalised politics of violence, manipulation, and disrespect for the law--this includes decisions by the Supreme Court. So [he] has instituted a reign of anomaly which was reflected in the elections."

About 200 people died during the election period. This attracted widespread condemnation in the West which had hoped that Nigeria would be an example of democracy to other African countries. However, the seeds for election fraud were sown by the British colonial masters before Nigeria's independence on 1 October 1960. Soyinka discloses in his memoir that the British rigged the first election in Nigeria to ensure that the conservatives in the North won because of fears that the Southern nationalists--in the East and the West--were radical threats.

"And so, to make absolutely certain that power did not fall into the wrong hands, specific instructions were issued by the British Home Office to its civil servants: the final results of elections to the federal legislature must be manipulated, where necessary, in favour of the political conservatives," Soyinka says matter of factly. Soyinka's views on Nigeria's former leaders are caustic, and he does not limit those views to wrongs in Nigeria alone. He has spoken out about Darfur, terrorism and religious fundamentalism. The fact that he is still alive, at 73, shows how much he is loved in Nigeria as so many tip-offs have saved his life.

Tim Cribb, the former director of studies in English at Cambridge University, describes Soyinka's personal fight against injustice as one that has "inspired countless individuals to take a stand on a score of issues. Whatever happens in actual politics, that is a permanent achievement".


Soyinka's memoir shares powerful memories and playful anecdotes about his political life in Nigeria, and gives some insight into the turbulent relationship he has had with Obasanjo. Soyinka was imprisoned from 1967 to 1969 during the Nigerian civil war, most of it in solitary confinement. Obasanjo became the military leader after Gen Murtala Mohammed was assassinated after the war, and Soyinka is annoyed with Obasanjo's "lies" over what happened.

"We've been on a roller-coaster since we first met," Soyinka says. "For Obasanjo's first coming, a lot of allowance was made for him because he had a lot of garbage to clear up. He was meant to have an interim regime until there were proper elections. People love to exaggerate and forget the general mood of Nigeria when he first arrived. The battle between us came with his second coming [in 1999] as he didn't win it."

Soyinka is famed for his plays, which Dr Olabisi Gwamna, associate professor of English at Iowa Wesleyan College, describes as "a celebration and resuscitation of forgotten customs, mores and dignifying lifestyle of the Yorubas. Through his plays, young Nigerians have a glimpse of issues and events they only learned in history books". Soyinka has also built a body of poems, memoirs, essays, and novels. Writing the memoir was Soyinka's way of addressing some of the "presumptions, lies, and distortions" about him by experts in African history and democracy. "I felt like I was being eaten alive, with them probing into my very existence and theorising with the utmost confidence," Soyinka says. "When I began I didn't want to write my life story, but about that period, and I think people who try to fill these gaps in desperation sometimes concoct all kinds of lies."

Soyinka's reaction to initiatives such as Live 8 by the rock stars Bob Geldof and Bono, and Tony Blair's efforts to raise Africa's profile, is surprising. "The level of poverty in Africa destabilises our projects and we need a certain level of economic buoyancy to prosper. It's not altruistic and is in their own interests, but why not if they benefit and our people are dragged up to cope better with things like Aids and provide water and electricity?," says Soyinka.

"I always squirmed at the 'We Are the World' first effort and I hate philanthropy. It reduces one's dignity and self-respect and portrays us with a beggar's bowl in all directions. However, I do admire those who mobilise those who are disadvantaged. I don't criticise those who make the effort, but we've left ourselves alienated from leadership. Whether it works depends on African leadership."

In 2004, when Soyinka presented the Reith Lectures at the BBC, looking at the climate of fear, he launched a scathing attack on Tony Blair and George Bush for invading Iraq. Is the world a safer place now that Saddam Hussein is dead? Soyinka does not think so. "The fear has deepened and expanded, and the invasion of Iraq has worsened the situation," says Soyinka. "We're dealing with irrational belief. The leadership of Great Britain and the ignorance of the world with the current American government have consequences for the rest of the world."

And where does that leave the UN? "The UN is still very relevant," Soyinka reflects, "and it needs to be more assertive and proactive." However, in his opinion, the UN has failed to intervene in crimes of genocide. "It refused to pay attention to the early warnings in Rwanda just as it is failing in Darfur. This is why the rise of powers like China is to be welcomed to balance power. The US undermines the UN and contributed to the destabilisation of Iraq by bypassing the resolution of the UN."

However, China's economic growth means it needs energy sources and this has prompted intense negotiations with African governments. China is offering infrastructure development and soft loans in exchange for African mineral and other resources. India is also competing for access to energy resources across Africa, leading to worries that a new wave of colonialism is emerging.

Soyinka says: "Africa should not be the monopoly of anyone. China should be able to trade with Nigeria. The only problem I have with China is when its commercial interests override laudable political positions. The role of China in Sudan hasn't been commendable because of its commercial interests. If China continues this way, it will make enemies of African people in the long run."
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Diaspora
Author:Izundu, Uchenna
Publication:New African
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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