Nigeria's voice of conscience

Boyd Tonkin on the Nobel laureate who attacks abuse of power in his land

Wole Soyinka - who in 1986 became the first writer from black Africa to win the Nobel Prize for literature - has for more than 30 years teased, satirised and affronted the bloodstained parade of military regimes in his native Nigeria. The treason charge just announced by the Abacha government crowns a series of stand-offs and confrontations that began in 1965. Then, Soyinka was accused of interfering with an election broadcast by substituting his own voice for a politician's. More recently, in 1994, his Nigerian and United Nations passports were confiscated. He escaped in dramatic style by being smuggled across the Benin border and thence to Paris.

Educated at Ibadan and Leeds Universities, Soyinka (born in 1934) worked at the Royal Court Theatre in London in the late 1950s before returning home to observe his country's independence. His trenchant take on the flawed state that replaced British rule was already evident in his play celebrating freedom, A Dance of the Forests, in 1960. His debut novel The Interpreters (1965), exposed the strains of Nigeria's fragmented society through a group of garrulous urban intellectuals whose high talk clashes with their low pleasures.

For Soyinka, and his country, simmering unrest turned to tragedy with the Biafran War. He served two years in jail from 1967 to 1969, after an ill-fated bid to broker a truce between the rebels and the federal Nigerian government. His prison experiences formed the basis of his 1972 book, The Man Died.

The Biafran bloodbath proved a turning-point for the writer. According to Adewale Maja-Pearce, Africa specialist at Index on Censorship and author of Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, the outcome of the fighting confirmed Soyinka's sense of "the emergence of a rapacious military regime and a civilian mafia working hand in hand".

Soyinka charted this process in a quartet of works, including the mordant play Madmen and Specialists and the pessimistic 1973 novel Season of Anomy.

For Soyinka, the root of Nigeria's troubles was "the betrayal of vocation for the attraction of power". Thus the Abacha regime - which seized control in 1993 after the annulment of free elections won by the Social Democratic Party under Moshood Abiola - now includes many non-military specialists.

But the technocrats in suits have abandoned the ideals of their calling. Maja-Pearce stresses that: "In his own life and work, Soyinka has been true to his vocation" even though "at a day-to-day level, his political statements can often sound naive or incoherent".

He welcomed Nigeria's first coup, in 1965, and two decades later showed initial support for the bloodless takeover led in 1985 by Ibrahim Babangida, before turning against the junta's "tricks and wiles".

Ever since independence, he has struggled in his writing and political activism with the fall-out from Nigeria's status as "an artificial creation", as he called it in an interview with Index. And this fresh charge further delays the task he set in 1992 for his divided land: "To take the military out of our political existence and ensure that they remain outside it, permanently." That goal now looks as far away as ever.

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