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Wole Soyinka: 'this regime just does not believe in innocence.'(Nigeria author/exile)(Interview)

For Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, art and politics have always been tied. He traces his political awakening to 1958 when he met the first generation of Nigeria's legislators in London and realized that they meant to step into the shoes of the departing white colonialists, and that the "first enemy was within."

Nigeria gained independence in 1960, and Soyinka has been critical of its dictators ever since. He was arrested in 1965 when a "masked intruder" held up a radio station at gunpoint in western Nigeria. The intruder, said to have been Soyinka, substituted his own tape for the scheduled rigged-election victory speech of Chief S.I. Akintola, urging him to "get out of town." Soyinka was acquitted a few months later.

In 1967, in what became one of his most contentious essays, "The Writer in a Modern African State," he took on his literary contemporaries -- the Negritude movement, in particular -- criticizing them for "the vital lack of relevance" between their "literary concerns" and "the pattern of reality" that had "overwhelmed even the writers themselves in the majority of African states."

"The average published writer," he wrote, "in the last few years of the post-colonial era, was the most celebrated skin of inconsequence to obscure the true flesh of the African dilemma." Such writers were "blinded" by the "splendors of the past." and when they finally awakened from their "opium dream." found that the politician had used their "absence from earth" to "consolidate his position." Soyinka implored African writers to become the "conscience" of their nations, or be forced to withdraw "to the position of chronicler and post-mortem surgeon."

He was again arrested in 1967 when he tried to broker a ceasefire deal between the federal government and the Biafran rebels, who wanted to secede from Nigeria. During the Biafran war, 1967-1970, 500,000 to two million mainly Igbo civilians starved to death when Nigerian troops imposed a blockade on rebel-controlled areas. Soyinka spent more than two years in prison, for the most part in solitary confinement. His vitriolic memoir, The Man Died, was written between the lines of books smuggled to him in prison.

He was released in 1969 and entered a period of voluntary exile. He lectured at universities, wrote. directed, and produced plays in Europe and West Africa. and founded the leading culture and criticism magazine, Transition, in Ghana. He returned to Nigeria in 1975, but left again in 1983 when he learned that there was a price on his head, after Shebu Shagari rigged himself back into power, and riots broke out.

In 1986, Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy cited his "prolific store of words," which he exploited "to the full in witty dialogue, in satire and grotesquery, in quiet poetry, and essays of sparkling vitality."

His best-known plays, written in English and performed mainly in West Africa and Europe, include: A Dance of the Forest, The Bacchae of Euripides, The Swamp Dwellers, The Road, The Trials of Brother Jero, Death and the King's Horseman, The Lion and the Jewel, and Opera Wonyosi.

Incarnations of his Guerrilla Theatre Unit, a production company founded in 1978, have been performing in Nigeria since the 1960s. Many of the skits have been sharply critical of Nigeria's military regimes and policies and have been performed not only in auditoriums but, provocatively, in front of government buildings and in public squares and marketplaces where authorities have cracked down.

In 1996, Soyinka published The Open Sore of a Continent, in which he accused the military regime of having robbed the Nigerian people of its nationhood when it annulled the presidential election of June 12, 1993. On that day, fourteen million Nigerians had crossed regional, class, religious, and ethnic lines to vote for Chief Moshood K.O. Abiola. The annulment convinced Southerners that the Northern, Muslim, military elite would never cede power to a Southerner, even though Abiola happened to be a Muslim. A year later, Abiola was imprisoned on charges of treason after he declared himself the rightful president of Nigeria.

After a brief interim government, General Sani Abacha seized power and has been Nigeria's dictator ever since. Human-rights experts cite continuing abuses under General Abacha, the most infamous being the hanging of writer and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, along with eight other Ogoni activists. Other abuses range from extrajudicial executions to political detentions, restrictions of freedom of expression and association, interference in the judicial process, and torture.

On March 12 of this year, Soyinka and fifteen other pro-democracy activists were charged with treason by the military regime -- a capital offense. It is a two-count charge: "conspiracy to levy war against the federal government of Nigeria" and "causing explosions in various parts of Nigeria." Some human-rights observers liken Abacha's charge to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Both the Ayatollah Khomeini and General Abacha crossed international boundaries to condemn a writer to death.

Soyinka has been in exile since 1994, traveling and lecturing in Europe and America. I interviewed him in April in New York City.

Q: Where were you when you received the news that the Abacha regime had charged you with treason?

Wole Soyinka: I was lecturing in the States. Somebody tracked me down, and asked me if I had learned about my recent "promotion" from being a mere "terrorist" to being a "treasonable felon." We knew it was coming; we knew it was building up. They've been trying to eliminate the opposition. This is just one more step in that direction. So it didn't make any impact on me whatsoever. It simply meant that I had to turn up my security one notch. That's all.

Q: I read in a London newspaper that you said there was an Abacha death squad?

Soyinka: Yes. The death squad exists. We know. We know where they're trained. We know where they're located, exactly, in Abuja; we know their modus operandi. So we're even able to know when some of them are sent out of the country.

Q: Because you've infiltrated?

Soyinka: Let's just say that the opposition has a reasonable network -- obviously, it's not comprehensive -- but we have efficient intelligence.

Q: And the intelligence tells you you're on the list?

Soyinka: Absolutely. That's how we learned, for instance, about a year and three months ago when agents had actually been sent out to eliminate three of us: Dasuki [the former Sultan of Sokoto], [Tony] Enahoro, and myself. The information was so precise that we were able confidently to alert both the FBI here and Scotland Yard.

Q: In The Open Sore of a Continent, you suggested that the next move for the people would be civil disobedience.

Soyinka: Absolutely. Even while I was in Nigeria, I was organizing a peaceful march on Aso Rock from every corner of the country. [Aso Rock is the seat of government in Abuja.] Everything was planned to the smallest detail. It was to be a mass movement on Aso Rock. I gave a press conference, detailing the plans, and applying for blankets, torches, rations, halls, and schools along the way, where people would rest.

Q: For when was this planned?

Soyinka: Just about three months before I left. And I was summoned by the S.S.S. [State Security Services]. It was a very interesting meeting.

Q: What did they say?

Soyinka: Well, it was very polite, very courteous. The officer even apologized for not coming to my house to have the chat. So then he asked me how on earth did I think I could mount such an operation? I said, "I'm not doing it by myself, I'm doing it in collaboration with various organizations." The labor unions would be involved, the market women, the students, the Campaign for Democracy. He said, "This is almost like a military operation." And he asked, had I considered the fact that this might result in unrest? I said, "No, the people working with me are disciplined, and they understand what's at stake. And obviously I cannot guarantee that there won't be a few skirmishes here and there, especially if the regime decided to fire." But, I said, "if it's left severely alone, I assure you, it will arrive in Aso Rock after a few weeks."

I think this frightened the regime very much. At the end, after we'd gone through the whole thing, he said, "OK, thank you, professor. Now, I have a responsibility to tell you the decision of the regime in this matter: The government has asked me to inform you that it will not countenance such a work, and that it considers itself bound to stop it by every means." So he asked me, what was my response? I said, "I have none. I've told you, this is not a one-man operation. I have to go and report back to the others, and tell them just what you said, and then we will take our decision."

Q: What did the group decide?

Soyinka: Well, the decision was that we should continue. They didn't want to give up. But then arrests began. People were pulled in for interrogation. Finally, I had to accept the decision of the group that I must leave.

Q: Leave the group, or the country?

Soyinka: Leave the country.

Q: Will that march happen?

Soyinka: It will take a different form. That particular march cannot happen. No, the march will not happen. And, in any case, when you organize a thing like that, you can only accept the responsibility by being a part of it. I'm not in a position to press it on the group if I'm not physically present.

Q: You have family there?

Soyinka: I had to go back and get them out. As hostage-taking became a cardinal policy of the government, and assassinations of relations and colleagues of dissidents who were out of reach began to become the norm, I had to get three adult members of my family out. I mean. the surveillance had become very crippling, really suffocating. This regime just does not believe in innocence. If for instance, those children had still been there, by now it would have been a different story. By the time that they decided to charge me with treason, I assure you, they would have arrested some of them. In prison right now there is a journalist, Dapo Olorunvomi -- they just arrested his wife about two weeks ago. There's another journalist whose wife and children have been under arrest -- children, you know, young children. The ages of the children-hostages vary from four to twelve in Nigeria. They are kept in police cells. It's something we have never experienced in Nigeria. Never. Never. They've always left civilians alone.

Q: Tell me about the attack in which the government fired on secondary-school students.

Soyinka: Many people don't know how mad Abacha is. Not many people believe that Abacha would fire on students. But we knew this.

Q: What were they protesting?

Soyinka: A 500 percent hike in school fees.

Q: Which city?

Soyinka: Benin. In Edo. I think on the first day of action, about close to twenty were killed, and others died later. We were monitoring the death toll. It just kept increasing. The last figure I received was thirty-seven. And the advantage of the opposition radio [called Radio Kudirat International, after the slain wife of the president-elect] is that we are able to broadcast to the whole nation what happened in Edo. The electronic media wouldn't touch it.

Q: You've said there's an absurd description of a day when you were supposed to be "conspiring" to bomb -- and you were actually in --

Soyinka: Davos. In Switzerland, at a meeting of the World Economic Forum. It's in the mountains. I was invited to participate, to give the opening speech, one of the inaugural sessions, and read a poem.

Q: Was the idea also for everybody to converse with each other or to listen to --

Soyinka: It's an embarras de richesses -- you don't know which one to attend. I was on a panel with Shimon Perez. Yep. People also come and go, especially heads of state ... I mean, just ask me who was not there, and maybe I'll be able to answer you. Now this is the period when Abacha's people announced, at an international press conference, that I was in next door Benin. They named place, time, saying I was holding a meeting with a student body, labor unions, market women, to finalize plans to overthrow Abacha! O.J. Simpson could not have asked for a more comprehensive alibi. I mean, what on earth! CNN was there in Davos. CNN has masses and masses of footage. My position is that it is not possible to commit treason against Abacha, because he is the embodiment of treason: We don't recognize this regime. And, of course, we told lawyers who volunteered to defend us -- those of us who are settled outside -- they should not appeal for us, because we don't recognize the courts -- we do not recognize the whole proceeding.

Q: Is there any part of you that would want to run for political office?

Soyinka: Nope.

Q: You said that so quickly.

Soyinka: That's a question I have been confronted with over and over. Appeals have been made to me, even within Nigeria, and so on. And no, I don't think so.

Q: Why?

Soyinka: Because, first of all, I think it would be a waste of energy. I arouse very extreme feelings in Nigeria of support, loyalty, and detestation because I take very uncompromising positions.

Q: You gave a recent lecture at Wellesley about the fictions around Africa, and its "refictioning" by African American leaders. What did you mean?

Soyinka: Well, I try all the time to challenge -- I'm not satisfied with "private" discussions, because the negative side goes on in public -- the Roy Innises, the extreme nationalists who distort African history, African reality, who play the power game and create problems for us on the continent.

Q: Farrakhan?

Soyinka: I understand that he's been revising his views. I really was astonished that he could be so critical of South Africa during the transfer of power and in the meantime, he was praising Abacha! I was so shocked by this. I was really furious. So the next few public lectures that I had, I took him on. Some of the Nigerians actually went and sought audience with him, and challenged him, and wrote him, and attacked him publicly. So as a result of all those attacks, and my own statements, I got the message that he wanted us to meet. And the people who brought the message said he seemed to realize that he had got a wrong end of the situation. So we'll meet sometime.

Q: What other African American leaders would you like to speak out on Nigeria?

Soyinka: Well, it's not up to me to decide that.... But, OK, take, for instance, someone like Andrew Young. He has occupied a position on the world stage which would make his voice terribly important and influential. And Andrew Young has been close to Nigeria. He was a friend of Obasanjo. They were quite chummy. And he has represented business interests in Nigeria when Obasanjo was in charge. I would expect someone like him to be more vocal. I mean, I really would. Jesse Jackson has also swung around now. At the beginning, he was on the other side. I remember when Babangida was in power, and Jackson was attacking the Clinton government for not having invited Babangida on a state visit, when we were trying to get rid of Babangida. But he also appears to have moderated his position. But they're not vocal enough. It's not enough to make a statement when, before, you've made far louder statements in favor of the status quo. You need something more dramatic.

Q: Is it true that you held up a radio station at gunpoint? I know -- I've read all the anecdotes, but I just want to bear.

Soyinka: I was acquitted.

Q: No, but you did it, right?

Soyinka: What do you mean, I did it?

Q: You did it.

Soyinka: Don't you accept the --?

Q: I don't know what to accept. I want to hear it from you.

Soyinka: [Laughter.]

Q: It's such a funny incident.

Soyinka: It's a long time ago now. You have very, very vague recollections of these things.

Q: Oh, OK, fine. So can we talk about guerrilla theater a bit? Has there been government response to that?

Soyinka: The guerrilla theater? They're not functioning at the moment.

Q: But when they were?

Soyinka: Oh, it was very effective, and it's been through successive regimes, you know, and of course they tried to shut it down -- strong-arm tactics, and so on.

Q: Like clearing up everybody, or disrupting the actual performance?

Soyinka: They tried that.

Q: So it must feel so antiseptic to you to do things here in the United States -- or does it?

Soyinka: It isn't antiseptic. There are different kinds of theater, and for me, all forms of theater are valid. There's a theater of relaxation, theater of consolation, theater of aesthetic attraction, and there is guerrilla theater.

Q: Ken Saro-Wiwa was a friend of yours?

Soyinka: We weren't close, or anything of the sort; his orbit was quite different from mine, but I absolutely supported his cause.

Q: Why has Shell, even now, not cleaned up that whole mess?

Soyinka: Because they're confident in the protection of the tyrant of Nigeria. They don't feel really obliged to. They signed a multi-billion-dollar contract for the liquefied gas project. It was done secretly, but it came out almost immediately. And that is when I knew that Shell had cast its lot, irrevocably, on the side of power. Because, to have gone ahead, when everybody was calling for sanctions and withdrawal of business and so on, for Shell to have signed that contract shows that its commercial interest obviously comes before its humanism. Now, lately, I gather it's establishing a "code of conduct" for its operations. Very interesting, very interesting.

Q: Has anything in this country inspired you to write about it?

Soyinka: Recently, no. I just take occasional jibes at this country in my lectures. But nothing creative has transpired between me and this country.

Q: You plan to stay here?

Soyinka: I don't plan. I have no plans. I have a temporary base, and I take it as a temporary base.

Q: Where is home, at this point?

Soyinka: In my head, that's where home is -- in my head.

Q: What do you miss about Nigeria?

Soyinka: The smell ... especially the smell of the bush when I go hunting.

Zia Jaffrey is the author of "The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India" (Pantheon). She has written for The New York Ties, The Nation, The Village Voice, and other publications.
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Author:Jaffrey, Zia
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:Aug 1, 1997
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