Wole Soyinka: A Literary Thorn in the Side of Power

As religious fanaticism increases, “the scroll of faith becomes indistinguishable from the roll call of death.” Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka (80) spoke out firmly against faith-inspired violence in a video address delivered at the World Humanist Congress – a triennial event organised by the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Mr Soyinka warned that even moderate religious leaders may be “vicariously liable” for sectarian violence in case they fail to unequivocally condemn it. “The conflict between humanists and religionists has always been one between the torch of enlightenment and the chains of enslavement,” said Mr Soyinka. “Those chains are not merely visible, but cruelly palpable. All too often they lead directly to the gallows, beheadings, to death under a hail of stones.”

Mr Soyinka has dedicated his life to hold usurpers to account. He still uses the might of his pen to fight those who claim to know, or have access to, the indisputable truth. All too often, Mr Soyinka’s literary antidotes to the absolutism of the powerful brought severe discomfort to both the playwright and his subjects. In 1967 he was arrested and thrown into prison by Nigeria’s military rulers for meeting with the leader of the breakaway Biafra Province in an attempt to avert civil war. Mr Soyinka remained behind bars for 22 months and during this time produced a number of plays and poems.

“He still uses the might of his pen to fight those who claim to know, or have access to, the indisputable truth.”

In 1986, Mr Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, the worldwide recognition that followed did not shield him from further persecution in his homeland. Toward the end of 1994, Mr Soyinka had to flee Nigeria on a motorcycle via the porous border with Benin when General Sani Abacha, the dictator of the moment, took note of his critical writings.

The Nigerian junta eventually levelled charges of treason against Mr Soyinka and had him condemned to death in absentia. However, by now the playwright had settled safely in the United States where he was welcomed at Cornell University.
The power-hungry Nigerian generals were not the only ones to fall foul of Mr Soyinka’s unfailingly sharp pen. The Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe was also made to feel the full weight of Mr Soyinka’s reproach as did South Africa’s apartheid rulers. The playwright once famously remarked that “the colour of the foot wearing the oppressive boot is irrelevant.”

After civilian rule was restored in 1999, Mr Soyinka returned to Nigeria where he was appointed professor emeritus Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife. He also holds a number of professorships at US and British universities. With a sizeable body of work now spanning over six decades – from plays to essays via novels, memoirs, poetry collections, and short stories – Wole Soyinka has carefully documented in prose the contemporary history of an entire continent as it struggles to reconnect with a lost identity and regain the composure shaken by traumatic experience.

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