Wole Soyinka at 90: Truth, Literature and Nation building, by Prof. Tunji Olaopa


Wole Soyinka has been hoary since I came to the knowledge of his works and his activism many years ago. Hoariness, for me, is not a feature of age or greying hair. On the contrary, I attach a certain level of exceptional venerableness to the very figure of WS. He possesses a dateless significance for me that surpasses the depth of his literary works to encompass his many-sided contributions to the idea of the Nigerian postcolony. I dare say that Wole Soyinka’s status as a phenomenal literary person assumes an even greater depth because of his very presence and attachment to Nigeria. All great writers, from Wiliam Shakespeare to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, derive their greatness from the literary and non-literary articulation of their disaffection with their context of being. Wole Soyinka is not different. From The Swamp Dwellers in 1958 to Thus Spake Orunmila in 2011; from The Interpreters in 1965 to Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (2021); and from The Man Died in 1972 to Climate of Fear (2005), Soyinka’s plays, novels and essays details—in stark literary sublimity—the terrors, ambiguity and possibilities of the Nigerian postcolonial predicament.

Nigeria provided the fecund grounds for the outflowing of the creative mind of a writer who loves his country and wants to do right by her in a mode of patriotism that the country finds combative. Writers are strange beings. They are alchemists. This is what Virginia Wolff says, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.” They possess the capacity, usually unavailable to the rest of us, to see into their own souls, the souls of the nation, and the reality of other people’s souls in travails. And then they generate a creative combustion that fires all our imagination about who we are, where we are, what our contexts are making of us, and what we in turn can transform our context into. When WS penned that most famous of his quotes, “justice is the first condition of humanity,” he was generating a philosophical space that complements his literary brilliance. Only few writers combine sublime literariness and philosophical brilliance. And that is to be expected because, as Quentin Tarantino, the American filmmaker once said, “A writer should have this little voice inside of you saying, Tell the truth.”

But then, while writers might nudge us towards the truth, philosophers insist on unraveling its depth. We remember the conversation between Pontius Pilate and Jesus before he was crucified. When Pilate asked if Jesus was a king, he responded, among other things, that he came into the world to bear witness to the truth. Pontius Pilate then threw that philosophical question at him: What is truth? But he was too impatient to wait for an answer. The answer is however still floating and amorphous either in the philosophers’ rarefied epistemological discourses or even worse within the dissident space of social media. Indeed, rather than wrapping up the discourses on what truth means, we have become burdened again with a further conceptual complexity: post-truth! With post-truth, signaled by Donald Trump’s alacrity in denying facts, we now arrive at the diminution of objective facts in favor of sentimentalism and emotion. And writers and activists like Wole Soyinka are now found therefore in the maelstrom of social media antagonism, especially around issues of truth, nation-building, patriotism and disinformation.

WS has noted his aversion for social media and the deep ignorance that it wears like a garland. That chaotic Gen Z space is strange to most people of my age, and should be horrific for a nonagenarian who grew up on the value of ọmọlúwàbì and respectful human relations. But what is even more abject is the level of disinformation, vitriol and banality that contend for virality. In fact, one can say that the desperation for a viral message far surpasses the desire for cogency, objectivity and even patriotism. For a writer that values truth and justice, this should indeed be a tragedy of a huge proportion especially for a state that needs the energy of its youth population for development purposes.

Wole Soyinka is the very definition of a patriot, the type that Nigeria needs; the type that has the courage to be a dissident—to love one’s nation sufficiently to disagree with her. And in novels, after plays after essays, WS reveals that he would keep being vigilant on the rampart of nation building. Let me attempt to recreate a mapping of Soyinka’s patriotic trajectory to make a larger point. In 1967, Wole Soyinka took a dare to head to Enugu to meet with Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the then military governor of the Eastern region. It was a most dangerous mission, more dangerous than holding up the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, Ibadan to replace the speech of Chief Ladoke Akintola who was already expecting his victory in the 1965 election. On this national scale, the stakes were much higher than what the western region could throw at him. He was so adamant in his belief that Nigeria should not go to war that he thought meeting with the military governor could still serve as a last-ditch act. He was not afraid of being branded a felon for the love of country. This, in any context, translates into the willingness to die for one’s country through a path that challenges that country to do better.

Soyinka’s entire literary credentials have been dedicated to the task of salvaging the Nigerian state and its proclivity for failures and destructiveness. WS once characterized himself as an “Afro-realist”: “I’m an Afro-realist. I take what comes, and I do my best to affect what is unacceptable in society.” This is the whole essence of his literary realism—directly representing Nigeria and the experiences of her citizens and leadership. And from the 1960s when he took up political activism, it would seem that WS would prefer to actively intervene in his own literary representation of Nigeria’s postcolonial predicaments by forcing truth into the open. It was not just enough to speak truth to power through literary characters and characterizations.

Now in the age of the internet and social media, Nigeria’s woes have become drowned by the vociferous cacophonies of those—government and citizens, detractors and patriots—who deploy information to misinform and disinform. No wonder Wole Soyinka has become a subject matter of social media hazing—he now has to fight his patriotic battles at many fronts against a government that he keeps challenging to do better and a horde of uncouth and unteachable youths who do not even understand what it means to be willing to die for one’s country. What would a nonagenarian activist be thinking at this late in his years? What reminiscences, nostalgia, painful memories and latent possibilities collide in his mind? Are there regrets lurking somewhere about what could have been done that were not because of the single-minded attachment to Nigeria’s future?

Let me end this piece with a recollection and a recommendation. When the late Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade was to be buried, Wole Soyinka was there. And he lamented about Nigeria and her heroes: “Nigeria kills us slowly; one by one, but surely. If Oje had given less of himself to a thankless nation, he would he alive today.” The irony of that lamentation is that Nigeria is still killing her heroes, like Wole Soyinka slowly and surely, and yet—like Ojetunji Aboyade—Wole Soyinka has refused to give less of himself. Our own venerated WS has commenced his earthly home run, and he does not need an elaborate posthumous pretenses and false affectation. All he wants would be to begin to see some significant and genuine move towards freedom and good governance. And the starting point would be to reflect on the coincidence between truth, information and governance in Nigeria. Bad governance is founded on untruth and political expediencies that sacrifices the national interest to the whims of a selected few. Good governance commences from a genuine commitment to objective facts—first, the fact of where we are and how we have missed it; second, facts about our own complicity in our own underdevelopment; third, facts about what needed to be done, sacrifices to be made, structures to be built and pulled down, values to be erected. One immediately sees the correlation between democratic governance, the press as the fourth estate of the realm and the commitment to human right which Wole Soyinka is passionate about. Nigeria needs to rethink its freedom of information and of the press as the sine qua non to a robust public/national space of free discourses and discussion about the future of a country that will not be allowed to degenerate into a simulacra of social media chaos and disinformation.

For relentlessly believing that a better Nigeria is possible, Wole Soyinka at 90 deserves the benefit of a commitment to the fulfilment of that expectation of a better Nigeria. And he deserves a turn in that direction while he is still fighting for it.

Prof. Olaopa is a Professor of Public Administration & Chairman, Federal Civil Service Commission, Abuja.

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