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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Health & Safety Consultant

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic and exciting opport...

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine