By Anote Ajeluorou
“The artist has always functioned in African society, as the record of mores and experiences of his society and as the voice of his own time. It’s time for the artist to respond to this essence of himself”. These were the words of Nobel Laureate in Literature, Prof. Wole Soyinka, also known as Kongi, to many of his admirers, as far back as the 1960s. For those writers who are still hesitant on what the role of the artist should be in society, this credo laid out by this inimitable African cultural icon is invitation at self-examination.
Soyinka’s life has borne out this credo in all its manifestations. Even the manner of protesting the limit placed on when a child should start school in his days is instructive of a child who would rebel against every known and established norm that runs contrary to logic. At three, he announced his intention to start school; this was when school age was six! He was to have his say and way, and today the world is better for that rebel spirit.
Soyinka’s activism and anti-establishment posture found solid expression during his days at University College, Ibadan, when he founded the Pyrates Confraternity along with some of his colleagues. The brotherhood was aimed at abolishing convention, reviving the age of chivalry, ending elitism and tribalism. After reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island Soyinka and his mates were struck by the lives of the pirates as narrated by young Jim Hawkins. The original seven founders of Pyrates Confraternity are Wole Soyinka, Muyiwa Awe, Ralph Opara, Pius Oleghe, Ikpehare Aig-Imoukhuede, Ifoghale Amata (patriarch of the Amata acting family) and Nat Oyelola.
In 1960, prior to independence, Soyinka was commissioned to produce a play to enact the dawn of a new nation. But like the visionary-prophet artist that he was and has been ever since, he saw beyond the mere euphoria that the period engendered. Nigeria was in celebratory mood for nationhood. The festivities were what held the most promise for a majority of the people, especially government officials who saw a chance to occupy vacant seats the departing British had held. They did not want anything to rock the boat of their utopia. But Soyinka saw otherwise. He saw beyond the banalities the independence festivities offered and rose in warning, like an elder who would not allow a goat to suffer birth pains in tethers!
But the messenger and the message were rejected. His play for the commemorative occasion A dance of the Forests did not see the light of the day. Its message, which the new nation was to swallow in bitter lumps barely seven years into nationhood in a bitter civil war, cast a gloomy aspect over the celebration. In panic, the officials rejected it. They could not connect independence conviviality with the theme of gloom the play projected.
The ‘Gathering of the Tribes’ referred to in the play is, therefore, the new Nigerian polity. The Tribes’ celebration is, however, dented by the fact that the commissioned totem, which was supposed to represent the spirit of the gathering, turns out to be a sacrilegious epitome of evil and the representatives of the ‘proud’ ancestral past turn out to be victims of past despotism and violence crying for justice. The work ends in a spate of negative prophetic utterances and a climactic failure to lead a half-child (abiku) to safety. The play, therefore, aims at countering the (now) unfounded euphoria of the independence days. Why celebrate the birth of an abiku? But, like the officials in the play, the Nigerian officials in charge of the independence celebrations rejected the play.
But the play’s prophetic import has abided, as Nigeria has floundered from one extreme of suffering from being unable to fulfill its potential as land of promise to yet another, now insurgency. It is this perennial failing in a country that should celebrate in abundance that Soyinka’s rebellious spirit cannot admit. And so he holds up those responsible for it to give account. And since they cannot give account, they become object of his scorn and venom.
For Soyinka, literature should carry the burden of morality in social relations. And like the ancient griot, he applied literature for the service of humanity, especially in a continent known for repressive regimes and their attendant poor economic foundations.
THAT was Soyinka’s first encounter with Nigeria’s barefaced official distaste to any form of critical and even contrary views. It was to continue through his midlife till now when he attains 80, as he navigated from one form of ugly encounter to yet another. But his stated credo, which is also his guiding political philosophy, regards the artist as the voice of vision, which he was to become at considerable cost.
In October of 1965, Soyinka was arrested for allegedly seizing the Western Region radio station and making a political broadcast disputing the published results of the elections of that year. The elections set the region ablaze, as they led to the most ugly outcomes, as they denied and thwarted the people’s will Soyinka, as a crucial part of his activist intervention in the politics of the day, moved into the Ibadan radio studio to switch the tape of Premier Ladoke Akintola’s broadcast. The aghast public, instead of hearing the Premier’s voice, heard another voice hectoring the Premier to ‘Get out!’
Soyinka was immediately identified as the ‘mystery gunman’ who did the damage. He was declared wanted. He went into hiding, traveling to the Eastern region to be with Sam Aluko, who had taken appointment at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, after he had been hounded out of the University of Ife by Akintola’s goons. In December of that same year, he was acquitted for want of evidence.
He wrote “Emergency Sketches” in 1962, and pressed lampoons on Dr. Moses Majekodunmi who had been appointed as the administrator of the troubled region.
He waged consistent wars with the goons of the Premier of the Western Region, Akintola, who had fallen out with the party leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
For visiting Col. Chukwuemeka Ojuku as part of efforts to stop the breakaway Biafra Republic, Soyinka was detained by the Federal Military Government on the orders of Yakubu Gowon. The country was teetering on the brink of Civil War following the controversial January 1966 coup carried out by army majors led by Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. The revenge coup of July 29, 1966 undertaken by Northern soldiers, led by Murtala Mohammed, in which the Head of State, General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi was murdered alongside his host Adekunle Fajuyi in Ibadan worsened matters.
Soyinka led a group he called the “Third Force” to counter the dangerous war propaganda raging at the time. He also outrageously countered the mantra formed with Gowon’s name, to wit, “Go on with one Nigeria,” with his own dictum: To have one Nigeria justice must be done! His imprisonment resulted in the prison memoir, The Man Died. He spent most of the prison term in solitary confinement, but he would not allow his mind to be broken by his captors.
LIKE his famous Abiku poem of the child that dies and keeps coming back to haunt the parents, so,too has Soyinka kept faith as the gadfly of Nigeria’s leaders, who, it seems, swore not do the right thing by the people. As a humanist, he would not sit still and watch things go wrong, which explains his constant struggle with the authorities. However, tired of merely venting tirades against the authorities as a frontline activist, Soyinka rolled up his sleeves in 2011 to join the political fray. It was the launch of a new political party in Nigeria. He was elected unopposed as the national chairman at the party's convention. Characteristically, however, he refused to run for office.
By so doing, Kongi was following the examples of the likes of Leopold Sedar Senghor and Antonio Augustinho Neto - poet/leaders of Senegal and Angola, men who didn’t wait for the politicians to fail and then complain about bad politics and leadership. They got involved and set the tones for what leadership should be. Unfortunately, Soyinka didn’t go the full hug as those two exemplars. He stopped short; he did not wish to seek for office. He merely provided a platform for youth action, the proverbial future leaders of our time! And for riding the country of endemic corruption.
The aim of the party The Democratic Front for a People's Federation, according to him, would be a political party that reduces corruption and improve conditions in health and education. In his own words, "I wish to emphasise that function, and it is clearly meant both as a warning and exhortation. Above all, the DFPF is a party for frustrated youth and uncomfortable ideas.
“The DFPF for now is disinterested in the overall national scene. But after taking control in one state, one council, one ward, would begin to reach out through example to others, gradually evolving a civic rule that governs and performs through mutual collaboration. Let this party resolve to overturn the iniquitous arrangement by which the national cake is swallowed entirely by those whose appointed task is to serve the sovereign electorate.
“Is it really impossible to have a voice unless you are swimming in billions? Institutions are pauperized and degraded. The gutters run with filth while the legislators run with the money".
Soyinka based the ideology of his party on youth participation and activism, as the fulcrum of national rebirth, as youths are more impatient with the slow pace of development that has tended to stagnate their creative and unused talent and spirits. For the Nobel laureate, "I do not give a blanket exoneration to the youth. Some of them are more corrupt than the most corrupt military or politicians. But among them you have idealistic, committed young people of integrity who would just like a platform, a political platform, away from what this country has been able to offer them so far".
SOYINKA’S activism stems from his avowed belief that art should serve humanity, especially the vulnerable segment of society by bringing about a change in society that can help such people actualize their dreams. The revolutionary tool Soyinka proposes to use for this end if the theatre, which speaks the ordinary man’s language. But beyond theatre, he has also appropriated the press conference medium, with the press as a strong ally in his fight for social justice and equality for all citizens.
And so, while setting out on his literary journey, he’d stated, with regard to his use of theatre thus, “First of all I believe implicitly that any work of art which opens out the horizons of the human mind, the human intellect is by its very nature a force for change, a medium for change. In the black community here, theatre can be used and has been used as a form of purgation, it has been used cathartically; it has been used to make the black man in this society work out his historical experience and literally purge himself at the altar of self-realization. This is one use to which it can be put.
“The other use, the other revolutionary use, may be far less overt, far less didactic, and less self-conscious. It has to do very simply with opening up the sensibilities of the black man not merely towards very profound and fundamental truths of his origin that are in Africa in suddenly opening him...to new experiences...as a means of making the audience question an identity which was taken for so long for granted, suddenly opening the audience up to a new existence, a new scale of values, a new self-submission, a communal rapport. By making the audience or a member of the audience go through this process, a reawakening has begun in the individual, which in turn affects his attitude to the external social realities. This for me is a revolutionary purpose...
“Finally and most importantly, theatre is revolutionary when it awakens the individual in the audience, in the black community in this case, who for so long has tended to express his frustrated creativity in certain self-destructive ways, when it opens up to him the very possibility of participating creatively himself in this larger communal process. In other words, and this has been proven time and time again, new people who never believed that they even possessed the gift of self-expression become creative and this in turn activates other energies within the individual. I believe the creative process is the most energizing. And that is why it is so intimately related to the process of revolution within society”.
This revolution, which the stage or theatre can engender, his it extension in society in Soyinka’s consciousness. It’s this revolution that he has continued to project in his political and social activism.
Soyinka might not have been on the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) group, but he lent such force to the anti-military efforts that it became so portent to cause the military serious headache. In particular was his unabated harassment of Gen. Sanni Abacha’s military regime with its ribald bloodbath. Like many others, he was on the top list of those marked for death. When the manhunt became too intense, he fled through the border to escape.
As part of his commitment to the struggle for a free and democratic Nigeria, Soyinka set up National Liberation Council of Nigeria (NALICON) in 1995. Like NADECO, NALICON’s mandate was to oust the military from power. It was the same year that Radio Democratic International was established to further push for the enthronement of democracy in the country. But just before the station started broadcasting operations, wife of MKO Abiola, Kudirat, was gunned down in Lagos. She’d championed campaigns for the release of her husband and his swearing in, believed to have won June 12, 1993 elections, as president. This senseless murder caused Soyinka and other promoters to change the name of the station to Radio Kudirat Nigeria.
With this station, Soyinka and his colleagues in the struggle for democracy harassed the military relentlessly. It became the single most effective weapon in the arsenal of the pro-democracy struggle. It told a different story to the outside world about abuses and repression going on in Nigeria.