Nobel laureate for literature, Wole Soyinka, was recently in London for the launch of a book celebrating his life and work at 80. Gateway for Africa editor, Dele Meiji interviewed him briefly, on Nigeria’s curent political crisis, his take on the current generation of African writers, and his views on Nigerian film [not Nollywood], African history and reparations. 

DM: A couple of years ago you were reported as saying that London is a cesspit of terrorism (in reference to its original role as a centre of empire – making them complacent in their attitude to religious proselytizing?  Do you still feel that sentiment? Do you think that applies to Nigeria in the current state it’s in?

DM: And in terms of Northern Nigeria, you were also quoted as saying that it was an attack on the sense and sensibility in the world that has spread to Nigeria and you said education was the solution? That’s a long-term thing, but what is it that currently should be happening?

Soyinka: I think the epicentre of terrorism whether you call it cesspit or whatever you want to call it, shift, if you asked me a while ago, I would have said Somalia, Somalia has quietened a bit – and I think the epicentre right now is in Northern Nigeria.

Soyinka: [Education] is a long-term thing, but at the same time with very firm and visionary leadership – the transformation of the perspectives of youth, to the rest of the nation, to humanity in general, that transformation can take place with, if you like, a revolutionary attitude. All it takes is the will, the understanding – of the danger of failing to fulfil that particular mandate [of] taking those youths away from a kind of tunnel vision of the world and being indoctrinated with the notion that there is only one way to look at the world and to relate to other human beings. To take them away from the sense of us against them – we’re holier than the rest; that the order of the religious prelate is sacrosanct; all that kind of re-education process can be undertaken and successfully carried out, within a year, of determination and mobilisation. When I talk about education, I’m not just talking about formal education; I’m talking also about informal education, so the totality of this sort of transformation package, for me – is not outside the reach – of any, really visionary leadership.

DM: Is there any prospect of that leadership?

Aha! To educate, you have to have people to educate! So the first mission of a nation like Nigeria is to secure itself, secure its people, against those who are on the opposite end of the axis of nation conceding. – So, I’m talking about a serious situation of war. And when I say war, I’m not talking about mental war; I’m talking about totally eliminating the obstacles to transformation of our children.

DM: On CNN you said you were supportive of international intervention…many people are hesitant about the intervention of the Americans or the British, in somewhere like Nigeria….

Soyinka: …Well, look at it this way, our soldiers have performed in many places; troubled spots – they’ve been to Yugoslavia, I’ve seen them in Lebanon, as peace-keeping forces, they’re fighting right now with some troops in central African republic. So if we accept sometimes the moral mandate, to have our troops on the ground in other places, what is so strange about others coming to reciprocate to that when we’re in trouble? I don’t see any coyness, essentially about it – of course, ideally, I’d like to see UN troops rather than bilateral assistance, that’s the idea; but if for instance we’d waited for UN troops to come to the rescue in West Africa, in Mali – after Mali was over-run – or they were partially over-run by the Al-Qaeda, with Boko Haram just sending in their troops for retraining, re-equipping, rest and restoration and then incursion into Nigeria. Nigeria – not just the northern part would have been in a real mess by now; but at that time, it was pragmatic, and essential for anybody to move in that place, and stop the march of militant and inhuman fundamentalism.

DM: Are you satisfied with the way the president has handled the situation…

Soyinka: Not in the least, acted too slow, and too little – is too complacent, he acted like someone who felt the problem would go away if he didn’t address it.

DM: This general complacency in Nigerian politics – is a part of the structure of the country. In the sense that the politics seems to need a very dictatorial strong man?

Soyinka: I think the main problem is the lack of a historic mind. We live in the real world – we live within a certain history of the plague that has landed on us. Anybody who knew the history of Algeria – would know that action should have been taken when a governor declared a certain section of the country a theocratic state; that it goes beyond – one of the reasons I sometimes feel very sympathetic towards Jonathan is that this problem did not begin with him; others landing him a hot potato on his lap, and unfortunately he’s not the kind of person who knows how to respond to a hot potato. He prefers to eat it.

DM: Taking this issue, the insurgency in the north, the unconstitutional dismissal of the CBN governor, and the recent introduction of the anti-gay legislation – in general how do you feel about Nigeria’s democracy post-1999. It sometimes feels like we’re back in the 1966 – when people suddenly felt the civilians can’t handle government – and some are calling for the military and calling for Abacha?

Soyinka: There’s a lot of insincerity about the actions of our legislators; they create distractions – like this anti-gay law you alluded to – and try to mobilise, to exacerbate people’s emotions. Until the legislators started making laws, people minded, generally, their own business. That’s the unwritten law by which Nigeria was living. So we have to ask ourselves, why suddenly…I’m not referring just to this law, but there are so many distractions created, when they should really be minding the fire on the roof. Millions, billions vanish and in the meantime, they’re sitting down there, making laws against people’s private conduct. That’s the part of the problem with governance in Nigeria – lack of sincerity.

DM: Patience Jonathan…

Soyinka: I’m not interested in her personally, but I know there’s a constitution – therefore she has no right to intervene on any level – as a citizen, like you and me – she can offer opinions. She can assist – she’s not the first first lady she’s had. I don’t really talk about her because she is one of the people representative of some of the major problems we’re facing in this country; people seize power to which they’re not entitled. If you study what happened in Rivers State – in fact don’t even bother with Rivers State, would you as a citizen tolerate the idea of an individual, shutting down an entire city – even a village, talk less of a busy commercial centre like Lagos because she’s going to her hairdresser? Would you tolerate that – as a citizen? It’s an insult. I take it as a personal insult. And anybody who fails to see it as an insult is not a self-respecting citizen, it’s as simple as that. I have nothing against her.

DM: That’s a particular representation of someone who isn’t a visionary leader; in your play Death and the King’s Horseman; we see the character of Iyalode – who is the kind of person you want – to handle a crisis. Do you think if we had more female leaders in Nigerian politics who were visionary that we’d have some sort of – maybe is it time to have a female leader in Nigeria?

Soyinka: Well, the recent scandals we’ve been having, involve the female gender; unfortunately – I’m personally sad about it – because I held the view, some years ago, that we should really pay attention to the possibility of women taking over the leadership. I said it publicly at the time. Well, it’s like, let’s try something different – and in any case, they’re entitled to – but they must prove their mettle – they mustn’t, get embroiled in the kind of situation we’ve been having lately. Flying around the place, in private jets – money going down the drain; it’s – there’s a woman who is on trial now, in a pension funds scam, which runs into millions and millions. So we should have a totally gender free approach to governance. That’s all I have to say – no one sex is this, that or the other.

DM: Moving from politics to literature? A lot of women are very prominent in there – what do you think is different in this generation from the generation when you were launching into literature? There seems to be less of a prominence of female writers in that time?

Soyinka: Well, I’ve joked about it several times that men writers had better look to their laurels, because these women they really want to start thrashing the opposite gender…and there’s no question at all that much of the exciting literature coming out today, is coming from the women, which is a very good thing, I believe. The reasons, sociological reasons for that, may exist – it may just be a phase – I have no idea – but the important thing is the literature is coming out from that section, it’s a good thing.

DM: In the 20th century, your generation launched African literature in the global imaginary – what do you think is the big mission for African writers now? In particular the ones from Nigeria…

Soyinka: As writers, I’ve always held the position, that writers primary position is  just to provide literature  – is to write; then of course, as citizens – they’re also citizens – I would, er, shall we say – promote a progressive line in their writing. Consciously or unconsciously. I would hope the writers reflect this season of anomie, which we’re going through right now; the immense, deep contradictions within society – the disparities between the quote, unquote classes. And most important of all, is just that they offer us a new vision of humanity in general. The rest is up to them.

DM: How should people/writers negotiate this, because Nollywood, the visual arts and film are in a way overwhelming what literature used to do and maybe radio to some extent….

Soyinka: What’s happening in Nigeria is not new, when television, I remember became common property so to speak – and I’m talking not just Nigeria, in European and American society, many pundits started to lament the death of literature; looking at youth who were getting more and more attracted to sitcoms – hard, adventure films and said, our children are no longer reading, or else they’re reading cartoons. I think this is a phenomenon which is common to all societies; if writers however, produce an engaging form of literature, the work of teachers, parents, of ministers and so, in encouraging and libraries also, in encouraging people to return the book would be so much easier. It’s collaboration.

DM: Would you yourself work with Nollywood or Nigerian film-makers…

Soyinka: Well, first of all, that term….

DM: Nigerian film….

Nigerian film industry, of course, absolutely, right now, Tunde Kelani for instance, we’ve planned a couple of films together – they never came to task; I’ve given him a manuscript, which I got from one Brazilian writer – which I think is very interesting social, done in an attractive and relevant way based on a real story. This manuscript came from outside. I always look for good material for film – I always make sure the film-makers you know, develop it.

DM: What’s the story?

Soyinka: Well, you know I can’t tell you because it’s based on a real life story of social struggle, corruption and death – you know, really, sinister, level of corruption. Which I think is something not just Nigerians but also citizens of the country where it’s based should see.

DM: Well, since we’re on Brazil, you will of course be aware of the inter-relationship between Nigeria and Brazil, in particular, the history of slavery – and I know this is something you’ve talked about before…the topic of reparations seems to be undergoing a resurgence, especially since a number of Caribbean countries are considering bringing a suit against powers like Britain…where do you stand on reparations?

Soyinka: I’m on record for saying that one of the way you can handle the relationship – I don’t want to use the word reparation – you know you can restore the human relationship between one side and the other. And in this particular case, that one of the way to do it – is to proceed symbolically. Because if you to start talking about money, start talking about forgiveness of debt in relation to past memory – you GET to STAGE YOU BEGING sound mercenary – but suppose for instance those who were engaged in that enforced displacement of Africans to develop the European economy as well as the quote/unquote third world. Suppose they all took a collective decision and said since art is one of the deepest reflections of our humanity, the humanity of any society. Why don’t they repatriate all the artwork they have stolen…looted Benin bronzes, the Aksum obelisk, all of it, all of which are part of a symbolic act of contrition and reparation. If we go about it that way – it takes it away from the pounds spent, shillings spent mentality, or a distortion of those who genuinely want reparations.

DM: What about the relationship between Africa and its Diaspora. Do you think Africans in general, on a broader level, and a state level, have done enough to engage with that history of slavery that is actually uncomfortable for a few societies?

Soyinka: Well, it’s a problem for many, but then we’re not even being comprehensive – if we’re going into reparations, and the history of slavery, then you’ve got to include the Arab world as well – the Arab slave trade enslavement of Africans, preceded the transatlantic slave trade and even lasted longer, and so for some reason people shy away from that – I don’t really believe in this language of political correctness, either total comprehensive or drop the subject. So they have – the European world – has a right to say, why just we alone – why – we followed other people, in terms of the enslavement of Africans, why aren’t you looking in that direction also. So if we’re going to talk about reparations, let’s be comprehensive and honest about this, and stop mealy-mouthing.

DM: Some of the argument is that the slavery that was practiced to some extent in Africa, to some extent in the Arab world, was not as punitive or soul-destroying as the transatlantic slave trade…

Soyinka:  That’s why some in the Arab world deny that there is any black culture in their society – because they have succeeded in enforced assimilation to such an extent that they can say it. My definition of slavery is the deprivation of human volition, any form of relationship between two peoples which is based on the deprivation of volition of one side, that for me is slavery, the rest is cosmetic, whether you can rise to become a general as has happened in history and not just in the Arab world, in the Greek classical world, in the roman world; soldiers rose to be consuls and generals as well. Does that sanitise the deprivation of volition from the human being? So, these are for me, all hair-splitting.

DM: You were quoted as saying that Chinua Achebe shouldn’t have written There was a country – and in your lecture at Oxford you talked about South Africa and Rwanda as examples of reconciliation and reconstruction in Africa. It seems to me a lot of that is based on a certain silence – so in Rwanda, there’s no talk about ethnicity anymore, in South Africa, there’s a pardoning of those that committed crimes in the Apartheid era – and some would feel that that in Nigeria, there’s a certain silence around the Biafra war. Do you think that silence is a bargain that must be struck….

Soyinka: It’s a very difficult question which you’ve asked – sometimes, I wonder whether we’re talking humanism or theology – the principle of forgiveness-  post-colonial forgiveness, or we’re conscious of the fact that sometimes forgiveness moves in the direction of injustice; especially if the structure of forgiveness does not involve some element of restitution. So it’s a very large subject, I’ve written about this and…but it’s always a heroic step, first, when you say you want to forget the damage that has been done to you as a people; it’s a heroic first step  – and one must not underestimate it. But the actual structure, fine-tuning of that process of forgiveness. I criticised for instance the blanket amnesty which was given to the militants in the delta in the riverine regions of Nigeria. The principle was correct – but to have a blanket – amnesty, is a form of forgiveness, is dangerous – there’s got to be selectivity. It’s a lazy but convenient approach to say everything is over, forgiven – mmh, mmh. There are different kinds of militancy and we should not be afraid to take the harder route of selectivity and discrimination. I think that is necessary, essential for our self-respect and for the future. That’s a personal philosophy of mine.

DM: One of the other things you talked about in your Oxford lecture was the principle of Ibatan – how do you see that being applied in practical terms?

Soyinka: Well it’s like saying you extend – that your immediate neighbour is your Ibatan to put it at its most simplistic. That’s why I use that proverb – that the head of the child is never askew when there are people in the market. That simply means everybody looks after everybody. You accept whoever you are interacting with, directly, or indirectly, as your Ibatan. It’s a large concept of one humanity, but of course it’s not always practical.

DM: How do you extend that in a country where you have all these different languages, and actually, connecting to languages – Is there a sense that to make a nation, that a lot of things have to die – like languages; for example we know that Igbo is actually an endangered language, Yoruba less so….

Soyinka: Go back to that proverb again, you don’t – if you see a child whose head is askew on the back of the mother, you don’t say can I help you, adjust the head of the child – no, you act. And even if you do not that, if you’re inhibited by the fact that you don’t know this person – you bring to attention to the mother’s attention that something is wrong with her own child. So the language business is a smaller part of it and even in the market you can negotiate what you want to buy without a common language. That’s why the market is for me such a marvellous metaphor for what should be a normal human relationship.

DM: And on language has Ngugi been vindicated? The question he asked about language and literature – not necessarily vindicated but it seems to be coming back with a question. Is that something that writers now need to engage with when it comes to African languages?

Soyinka: I believe that each writer must decide in which language he or she is most comfortable; it applies not only to Africans – to former colonial societies, it applies even to writers who deliberately choose a foreign language in which to write – because that sense of distance exercises their imagination in a way that their own language should not [sic].

DM: I understand you collected masks and works of art. Somewhere in You must set forth at dawn you said someone sold that collection without your authorisation – did you recover that collection. In a broader sense, what do you think is happening in terms of African historical memory? Are we having a more positive relationship to it now?

Soyinka: African’s Historic Memory. I know who stole my artwork, and that memory still hurts. Historic Memory – African memory – well, negotiations are on, to get back the symbols; the concrete precipitates of that memory. The debate goes on, UNESCO are involved, certainly Africans I know [sic] usually send their representatives over these negotiations to participate – a lot of it is political and there are countries who unilaterally have sent back their collections, there are some  museums, in the united states, made copies, and said people can learn from these very meticulously made copies, even with the patina of age and so on; Carlos library at Emory university in Atlanta, is an example – and I think many other nations can offer the same kind of remedy and stop insulting Africa further, and saying, oh, if we send them back they’ll only sell them, termites will eat them, it’s only here…all sorts of excuses. Again it depends on leadership, will – how important is it for nations to guard, to retain, in situ, the historic materialisation through art, their memory.

Essays in Honour of Soyinka at 80, published by Ayebia is available now.