Media Hero: Nigeria’s Soyinka Comes Home (12/98)


For four years, Nigeria’s Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka roamed Western capitals, seeking support against military rule in Nigeria. His life was in danger several times, as agents of the late dictator, General Sani Abacha, tracked his footsteps in London, Rome, and New York. Thus, Abacha’s death in June lifted a weight off his shoulders. The new military ruler, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, appeared to be a man of liberal principles who would not allow the machinery of the state to target such a gifted individual.

Sure enough, on a visit to the UN in September, Abubakar invited Soyinka and several other opposition leaders to meet with him. At the meeting, he personally asked Soyinka to return home. The writer didn’t need much prodding. Nor did he disappoint those who know him and doubted he’d return with his political opinions sheathed in kid gloves.

His first port of call was the home of Chief Moshood Abiola, winner of the 1993 presidential election, who died in detention last July. Both Abiola and his wife Kudirat, who was murdered by Abacha agents in 1995, are buried at Abiola’s home. Visiting their graves, Soyinka made a political statement. He was, in effect, criticizing Abubakar for failing to release Abiola, who had been denied proper medical treatment in detention, and letting him die.

But Soyinka’s coup de grace was delivered at a lecture he gave at the Nigerian Law School in Lagos. "There is a raging fire in the minds of many of our citizens," he told his audience, "and we had better put it out before it leaps forth and consumes the nation." So sick is the body politic that even "fanatics of unity" have been driven to a point where they "virtually spit on the name, Nigeria."

Likening the current state of the country to a crumbling edifice, he said the dilapidation isn’t caused merely by a faulty roof or cracks in the walls. It’s the very foundations created by the British, who "cobbled" the nation together and "falsified" the census before they granted Nigeria independence in 1960. This enabled one region, the north, to monopolize power. With such a foundation, Soyinka asked, "Do we express astonishment when the building crumbles gradually or implodes suddenly on itself?"

Nigeria can only be salvaged by calling its people together for a national conference where they discuss their future interrelationships, he advised. The North is behaving like the stomach in a fable, which does no work itself yet sits at the center of the body and consumes everything the other parts produce. The government is over-centralized, he added, a situation causing demands for the creation of new states and local government areas.

"Some [demands] have been inscribed in blood and destruction," Soyinka recalled, "while others merely fester, erupting from time to time like neglected boils on the hidden parts of the body. Is it, or is it not, time for a concerted project that re-designs both the geographical and internal relationships of such contesting spaces?"

Speaking afterward to the Lagos Guardian, he was asked whether the national meeting he advocates would impede the program by which Abubakar’s government intends to hand over power to a democratically-elected civilian government in May 1999. The conference and the program would run side-by-side, he explained. Decisions made at the conference would be made available to political parties taking part in the transitional program. In any case, he added, nothing should prohibit citizens aspiring to democracy from sitting together at any time to discuss political relationships.

Nevertheless, Soyinka’s proposal is certainly a challenge to the Abubakar government. Even as he spoke, agitation for a more equitable sharing of the proceeds from the country’s oil resources took a violent turn in the oil-producing areas of the Niger delta. In the oil town of Warri, for example, groups of Ijaw youths have armed themselves and are battling with their neighbors, the Itsikeris, over disputed, oil-rich lands. Several people have been killed and scores of houses have burned in recent clashes. The Ijaw fighters are also targeting the operations of large oil companies such as Shell and Chevron, whom they regard as co-conspirators with a government that cheats the people of a fair share of their resources while ruining their environment.

The government has sent troops to Warri, and has made it clear that it won’t allow oil company operations to be impeded. But the usual knee-jerk reaction may not work this time, with discontent so widespread. Abubakar may therefore have no option but to listen to his Nobel Laureate. Certainly, he has nothing to lose if he decides, as Soyinka puts it, "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war."

Cameron Duodo, who edited Drum in West Africa, reports and writes plays in London.