Our Credulous Grammarian

Adewale Maja-Pearce

  • You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir by Wole Soyinka
    Methuen, 626 pp, £18.99, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 413 77628 0

Towards the end of this, his third volume of memoirs, which covers the period from independence in 1960 to the death of General Sani Abacha in 1998, the 64-year-old Wole Soyinka is preparing to infiltrate himself back into his native Nigeria to confront the latest manifestation of military adventurism. By 1998 he had been in exile for three years and was impatient with the failure of the opposition to mount a decent challenge to Abacha’s regime. Worse yet, Abacha, the ‘monster’ who had earned worldwide opprobrium following the 1995 judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa, appeared to have persuaded the international community to accept his transmutation into an elected civilian president, through the five political parties he had created and funded for that purpose. Soyinka believed that his own presence on Nigerian soil, where he would make occasional broadcasts on the opposition’s clandestine radio network, would galvanise the populace and postpone the ‘evil’ day when armed resistance could no longer be avoided.

Mercifully, Abacha died in mysterious circumstances before Soyinka could embark on his one-man liberation mission, but anyone familiar with Soyinka’s extra-literary escapades will not be surprised by his willingness to engage a corrupt government with more than just his pen. Three decades earlier, when the then ruling party was busy rigging the first-ever post-independence elections, he held up a radio station at gunpoint to force them to broadcast a seditious message. He was promptly declared to be ‘wanted’ and taken to court, but he got off on a technicality. Shortly afterwards, with the country sliding towards civil war, he set himself up as the head of a pressure group known as the Third Force and travelled to the about-to-be breakaway state of Biafra to negotiate a truce with the ‘rebel’ leader. That he wasn’t executed by the first of the military regimes which went on to dominate Nigerian politics was due in part to his growing international stature as a dramatist and poet who had also published a well received novel. He was arrested and spent most of the next 27 months in solitary detention.

Soyinka is a physically courageous man for sure, but to what end? The elections – then as now – were rigged anyway; the country went on to fight a civil war it now appears intent on fighting all over again; and he was lucky only that Abacha died before we could be traumatised by the sight of yet another writer perishing by the sword. Either way, the man generally considered Africa’s greatest writer would have been useless to the cause, which was – and is – to rid the country of the cabal that has pauperised it, as Soyinka himself predicted even before it revealed itself in all its wanton greed.

For Soyinka, the signs were there from the start. As a student in Leeds in the late 1950s, he rushed eagerly down to London to meet with the representatives of the people who had come to negotiate the transfer of power from the British colonial master, only to discover that these self-styled nationalists appeared more intent on sleeping with the master’s daughter than liberating their people: ‘I recall one publicly humiliating instance: a national figure, a truly revered name in a highly sensitive political position. He got so carried away with his date that he paid for a one-night stand with a cheque, beneath which, just in case his scrawl was indecipherable, he had written his name, complete with official position.’ With increasing dismay, Soyinka observed ‘their self-preening, their ostentatious spending, their cultivated condescension, even disdain towards the people they were supposed to represent’, and feared the worst. His forebodings were expressed in his first published play, A Dance of the Forests, which failed to be performed at the 1960 Independence Day celebrations only because someone in authority finally took the trouble to read it.

The absence of any sustaining vision of what independence meant not only led to the political crisis that quickly engulfed the newly independent nation but rendered the leading actors themselves incapable of preventing the slide into civil war. Tellingly, the war itself was fought under the meaningless slogan, ‘To keep Nigeria one/Is a task that must be done’, as though this loose amalgam of 350 ethnic groups and two world religions had been created by God and not a foreign power preoccupied with its own strategic interests. The one thing the representatives of the opposing forces needed to do was to sit down together to hammer out a political arrangement that would accommodate the very real concerns of the various groups unhappy with the country they had inherited.

For Soyinka, the Biafran war could result only in ‘a consolidation of crime, an acceptance of the scale of values that had created that conflict’, and the emergence of ‘militarist entrepreneurs and multiple dictatorships’, as he perspicaciously put it in The Man Died, the memoir he published shortly after his release from prison. But the fault was not all on one side. In his current memoir, he is equally scathing about those of his compatriots who were willing to collaborate in their own degradation:

With victory go the spoils of war. Civil society lay at the feet of the conquerors, and within that civil society were many who had genuinely cheered, even sacrificed for the war of oneness. For others, the military had become enthroned as the new elite, and the level of fawning and jockeying to be merely noticed and smiled upon by any pretender in uniform already spoke of a nation that was loudly pleading to be crushed underfoot.

He recounts the harrowing story of a fellow writer who was horsewhipped in front of his wife and children because the corporal on traffic duty, impatient, as many were, with ‘grammar people’, imagined that he had jumped the queue. Such casual brutality became the norm, and Soyinka was sufficiently distressed by its daily manifestations to opt for a protracted exile, first in the UK and then in Ghana. What perplexes a reader, however, is the contradiction between his well known hatred of injustice (‘For me, justice is the first condition of humanity’) on the one hand, and his apparent willingness to dine with its perpetrators on the other.

Consider his friendly relationship with his fellow townsman Olusegun Obasanjo, as it emerges from these memoirs. Obasanjo, ‘a child of fortune’, was a soldier in the civil war who became military head of state in the mid-1970s, when his predecessor was murdered in a failed coup attempt. Among the achievements of what was to prove his first, short tenure, was a secret offshore detention camp, where his perceived enemies were treated much as one would expect. Another was to send the army to burn down ‘Kalakuta Republic’, the home of the Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, because Kuti – a cousin of Soyinka’s – had derided soldiers as zombies in one of his songs. Obasanjo relinquished power after organising elections that were rigged in favour of the consensus candidate chosen by the cabal that was by now firmly entrenched in power. In 1999, he bounced back, as a civilian president in elections rigged by a military that needed to shed its khaki in order to enjoy some measure of international respectability. Eight years later still, having presided over a ruling party that Soyinka himself called ‘a nest of killers’, following a spate of unsolved murders of well known opposition figures, Obasanjo organised another round of elections which even the normally complaisant international community baulked at, until – with one or two honourable exceptions – they came to see that access to Nigeria’s crude was more important than the people’s mandate.

Why Soyinka should want to be friendly with such a man is perplexing enough, especially when his ‘friend’ betrayed him on a number of occasions. The first came when Soyinka was about to embark on his ill-advised mission to save Biafra from itself. At the time, Obasanjo was the most senior local army officer in a position to prevent the war, but no sooner had Soyinka let him into the secret of his peace initiative than Obasanjo reported him to his superiors. Not that Soyinka hadn’t been warned what to expect: Obasanjo’s own officers had already told him that he was not to be trusted, and he was himself incensed by Obasanjo’s ‘doctored’ account of what transpired at their meeting. By and by, Soyinka agreed to a reconciliation meeting through the good offices of a mutual friend and found it in his heart to forgive his adversary, who nevertheless insisted on clowning about, as Soyinka records it. And that is where it should have remained. Alas, ten years later, with Obasanjo ensconced as the new military head of state, the two men had occasion to do business again and, again, we read about the ‘bullish personality’ and ‘calculating and devious’ actions of someone who ‘remains basically insecure, and thus pathologically in need of proving himself – preferably at the expense of others’.

So why did Soyinka put up with it? Because, he says, he has ‘proprietary rights over such a phenomenon’, a figure ‘already indebted to me by an act of treachery’ and could therefore ‘regard him as a private reserve for compensatory study’. Since this won’t quite do, he adds that, to his ‘intense chagrin’, he must have inherited ‘a missionary streak’ from the parents he wrote about so movingly in Ake, his childhood memoir. One might think that there are worthier recipients of Soyinka’s missionary impulse. In fact, all this is just a tortured way of betraying his fascination with temporal power, and with the ‘militarist entrepreneurs’ he continues to dine with under the guise of helping the disenfranchised:

Those who insist on inhabiting the real world find themselves subjected to the clamour of what can, and deserves to be extracted from usurped authority on behalf of a nation, on behalf of the non-statistical, palpable humanity that constitutes one’s vital environment. For a temperament such as mine, it has never been possible to shunt aside…a sense of rebuke of how much is lost daily, wasted or degraded, how much proves irretrievable, damaged beyond repair, through a position that confers the self-righteous comfort of a purist, non-negotiable distancing.

Soyinka is never the most lucid of writers but he does violence here to the evidence he himself provides. Take the case of General Ibrahim Babangida, whose tenure coincided with Soyinka’s Nobel Prize in 1986 and who was later to be accused by the World Bank of looting $12.2 billion of the nation’s oil earnings, largely through dedicated bank accounts to which he was the sole signatory. Eager to be accepted as an intellectual equal by the celebrated writer, he invited himself to dinner and the two men became firm friends. Before long, however, Babangida unearthed evidence implicating his childhood friend Major-General Mamman Vatsa in an impending coup. Vatsa also happened to be an aspiring poet and active member of the Association of Nigerian Authors, and Soyinka, in the company of the novelist Chinua Achebe and the poet J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, made a much-publicised visit to the general to plead on behalf of their colleague. Babangida received them sympathetically, declared his own reluctance to spill blood and assured the delegation that he would do his best to convince the inner council (‘I shall go into the crucial meeting determined to do everything in my power to save him’), but the triumvirate had barely reached their homes before they received the chilling news that Vatsa had been murdered.

Soyinka could not, would not believe that Babangida’s hands were clean, but then somehow accepted the protestations of an emissary: ‘Prof., all I can do is give you a report of how that meeting went. I think it’s only fair you know that IBB kept his word. He has been most anxious that you know it,’ etc. Later, Babangida was directly implicated in the parcel bombing of a journalist, Dele Giwa, whom Soyinka had met on a number of occasions and, once again, the charming general protested his innocence as a ‘man of honour’ and was believed by our credulous grammarian.

More curiously still, Soyinka manages to make a distinction between the devils he will sup with and those he will not. Beyond the pale are General Muhammadu Buhari, Babangida’s predecessor, and General Abacha, his successor. The first had overstepped the bounds of pardonable behaviour by using a retroactive decree to execute three convicted drug dealers, the second by executing Ken Saro-Wiwa through a judicial process which had established his guilt before it began sitting. But murder is murder and such distinctions are hard to understand. As regards Abacha especially, Soyinka’s contempt is clearly personal, as if he is outraged that one of nature’s ‘human aberrations’ should have chased him out of his country in fear of his life. It’s only a mercy that Abacha never got hold of him in exile, having been forced to endure the sight of his adversary popping up on television speaking a lot of ‘grammar’. Anyone who lived through the Abacha years knows how much Soyinka’s public pronouncements from exile maddened the regime, which was why it declared him to be a ‘wanted’ man, and why, according to rumour, it recruited hitmen from Latin America and the Middle East to dispose of him.

The major flaw in this long, rambling, badly-written book is the author’s anxiety to be seen as a central player in the unfolding tragedy of Nigeria. We are given endless accounts of his derring-do, not limited to holding up radio stations or consorting with the ‘enemy’: they include, for instance, an attempt to steal an Ife bronze head from a private collection in Brazil which turned out to be a terracotta souvenir from the British Museum. Soyinka the writer, who, in a series of plays and ‘interventions’, had anticipated more accurately than any other intellectual the monstrous tyranny and corruption that was to crush the country, has here succumbed to Soyinka the public persona, and the result is tedious, as all such self-reverential exercises generally are.

The one story that would alone have made this book worthwhile is only fitfully sketched in between breathless accounts of his relentless one-upmanship: his friendship with the late Femi Johnson, an insurance magnate and one-time actor, who became part of Soyinka’s circle soon after his return from the UK. The friendship deepened during Soyinka’s initial detention, ‘when I first experienced, with sheer wonder, the potential depths of human friendship.’ Johnson was a constant visitor ‘turning up sometimes even twice or thrice – on his way to the office, returning home from the office or setting out from home for no other purpose than to keep me company, remaining as late as the police would permit him’. On the eve of the verdict and fearing the worst, Johnson offered Soyinka a driver to spirit him to safety, as long as he was kept in the dark about the details. ‘If I don’t know anything,’ Johnson explained, ‘then I can’t give anything away. I can’t imagine torture, I tell you. I’ll break before a hand is even laid on me, so it’s better for me not to know.’ In fact, he was more courageous than he was willing to admit. Some years later, he took advantage of a trip to Nairobi to make contact with the wife of the imprisoned writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o:

Femi’s trepidation at such assignments was genuine. Equally genuine however was his relish of them! He revelled in the business of flattening letters and cash into false compartments of his suitcase, making clandestine phone calls from the public box in the lobby of his hotel rather than from his room, trying out different verbal codes to disclose his identity and that of the person whose intermediary he was. Our insurance broker carried out his mission to the letter, and then some!

Johnson is the one who drove Soyinka to his ill-fated meeting with the treacherous Obasanjo, but then his flair for the dramatic had already been realised ‘in the shaping of Soyinka’s dramaturgy’, for as Femi Osofisan, the country’s most prolific playwright, puts it, Johnson ‘was an actor born for strong roles, and for whom Soyinka undoubtedly created those protean, histrionic figures always at the centre of his cast.’ Unsurprisingly, Soyinka doesn’t himself allude to his friend’s thespian accomplishments, which would only have detracted from his own dramatic posturing.