Soyinka at 86 – Part 1

Soyinka at 86 – Part 1

In 1976 Wole Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature (he was later to be joined by the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and the South Africans Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee). Poet, playwright, novelist and essayist, he has excelled in all genres, being prolific, provocative and sometimes hugely entertaining.

He is often considered to be a “difficult” author: witness much of his poetry and a play such as The Road, which is deep and complex—and I would argue one of the very greatest plays written in English in the second half of the last century. But he can also be straightforward and very funny, as in his satirical songs (he accompanies himself on guitar) or in a play such as “The Trials of Brother Jero”, which crops up as a schools’ set-text all over the place.

Many readers of thepost will remember his one and only visit to Lesotho, around the year 2000, when he came with the theatre company Nawao (that’s Nigerian for “wow!”) as producer of his political satire King Baabu, which was given two performances at the Conference Centre, Maseru. Both Soyinka—who can be prickly and demanding—and the actors and technical crew (from Switzerland, Germany, the UK and Nigeria) were extremely happy with the event, especially as it followed a not very successful tour of South Africa. In the Republic Soyinka had refused to give interviews, but in Maseru after the first performance he submitted to a question-and-answer session with the audience, “on any subject you like,” he said, “except for beauty contests.”

That stipulation because he was sick of a row he’d got into over remarks he’d recently made. For Soyinka is nothing if not controversial. All well and good, except that he doesn’t always check his facts. Some weeks after the southern African tour he published an article in The Scotsman newspaper in which he confused Lesotho with Swaziland. Trust me, readers, I told him off.

Soyinka has been continuously engaged in political controversy. In 1967 he was jailed in Nigeria for almost two years and spent most of the next few decades in exile. His book The Man Died is perhaps the most important prison diary to come out of Africa, and I am not forgetting the many superb works of that kind produced during and after apartheid.

At the age of 86 Soyinka is proving to be as feisty and combative as ever. One recent and very attractive example of this is his commentary on the fouling of democratic practice in the run-up to Uganda’s January 2021 Presidential election. Interviewed on this by The Guardian newspaper, Soyinka comments in a way that is both trenchant and laced with mordant humour.

In the event, Yoweri Museveni claimed victory with 58% of the vote, his main opponent, Bobi Wine, reputedly coming in a poor second. Soyinka begins his The Guardian account by referring to recent events in Washington, noting that “one casualty of the Capitol riot will be Uganda’s election; global outrage at the storming of the US Capitol risks diverting attention from repression by Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni.” A fair point, except that the world regularly diverts its gaze from abuses in Africa, witness my recent comments in this paper on its tolerance of the dictatorship in Cameroon.

Soyinka says of the youthful, brave and vigorous Bobi Wine, “To me, he represents the spirit of Africa’s future.” Yoweri Museveni is a much more difficult call. As a freedom fighter, he was instrumental in the overthrow of Idi Amin. But he has hung on to power since 1986, and Soyinka comments: “he has become in effect the very thing he fought against. Museveni’s going to fight to the end, and he’s going to fight dirty because he believes power is his natural birthright.”

Then, as he continues to lambast Museveni, Soyinka’s sense of the ridiculous kicks in: “I wasn’t impressed by his intelligence . . . I remember we were in Davos and we were on a podium and afterwards I met some of his people and I said ‘Look, just tell your man not to talk about things he doesn’t understand.’ And you know what one of them said? He said: ‘Look at you. You only had him for a few minutes. We have him all the time!’”

Far less attractive than his piece on Uganda has been Soyinka’s response to the work of two writers, Caroline Davis and Juliana Spahr, who have dug up again the matter of CIA funding for African writers and literary journals in the 1960s. I haven’t read the essays by Spahr (Davis is a historian of publications at Oxford Brookes University and I have read her book on the affair), but the fact that the CIA—directly and indirectly—provided such funding during the Cold War, in the hope of getting African writers and editors on to the side of the West, is very well documented.

One had thought the matter had been laid to rest, especially with the work of the brilliant Canadian scholar Nathan Suhr-Sytsma, who has cleared up misconceptions in earlier accounts. Davis’s book struck me as being scrupulously objective, and she accuses Soyinka of no more than carelessness or naivety in his search for funding in the early 1960s). Whatever the case, Soyinka’s reaction to Davis and Spahr is shallowly vindictive, as he threatens to pursue them “to the end of the earth and even to the pit of hell unless they supply proof of their allegation or retract what they published.”
To be continued

Chris Dunton

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