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.

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