Walking a Step with Soyinka

Posted on August 27, 2015 in Essays

Review of Wole Soyinka, The Open Sore of a Continent: a personal narrative of the Nigerian crisis ( Oxford University Ptress, 1996); Collected Plays (2 vols., re-issued Oxford University Press, 1996); and Kole Omotoso, Achebe or Soyinka? A Study in Contrasts (Zell Publishers, 1996)

When Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian novelist, playwright and President of the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People was hanged on November 10, 1995, following a rigged and rushed trial, the machinery of execution had rusted from disuse. As he was being led away from the gallows after the third or fourth botched attempt to kill him, he cried out “Why are you people doing this to me? What sort of a nation is this?” It is the question that haunts Wole Soyinka’s newest book.

Despair and anger about Africa are commonplace. Writers who address it need a rare eloquence if they are not to lag far behind what is said openly in streets and bars and market places. What can a mere author add to the raging scorn, the inventive scatology, the cackling contempt for corruption and brutality that are the substance of today’s “oral traditions”? Or when the people have been bombed or hacked into silence, or herded into refugee columns, criss-crossing borders with their pathetic possessions and their trail of corpses, what role is there for African writers agonizing in their enforced exiles?

Soyinka’s title echoes, perhaps unconsciously, an earlier despairing comment on Africa, when the dying Livingstone, himself haemorrhaging, confided to his journal the prayer that someone would abolish the slave trade, “this open sore of the world”. It was a plea that played a part in the colonizing experiment, recruiting philanthropy as well as greed and authoritarianism, to the partition of Africa. The boundaries created in that scramble have, with minor adjustments, given birth to, or been aborted as, the independent “nations” that are the object of Soyinka’s present enquiries.

I write “enquiries” advisedly, because whatever questions Soyinka puts to his readers, he puts equally urgent questions to himself. If he demands with Ken Saro-Wiwa “What sort of a nation is this?”, he asks himself what he is doing as a Nigerian writer, or as a writer from Nigeria. The latest twist in this long saga is that the Nigerian junta, having detained and exiled their Nobel laureate, have charged Soyinka (and eleven others) with the capital offence of high treason.

The Open Sore of a Continent is framed by a personal account of events in Nigeria since the annulled election of June 1993, and is valuable on that account alone. Chief Moshood K. O. Abiola, who won that election, remains in detention, and his senior wife Kudirat has been assassinated. The military junta, which has misruled Nigeria effectively since 1966, has succeeded in convincing some friendly governments that it acted to preserved Nigeria’s “unity” against the threat of Yoruba dominance – despite the fact that Chief Abiola is a Muslim and that his Social Democratic Party won a majority of the votes in northern and eastern Nigeria, as well as in the western region where most of the Yoruba people live. Meanwhile, in the defence of that same “unity”, the junta has targeted the hapless Ogoni people in their struggle against the depredations of Royal Dutch/Shell, executing Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others. It is this taboo issue of ethnic nationalism that Soyinka, a Yoruba, tackles head on.

On Nigeria, his case is simple. The military, and the world outside, should accept the results of the 1993 election. But the larger issues loom. What constitutes nationalism, and what are its territorial implications? Soyinka’s pursuit of these questions makes The Open Sore a book of significance.

To Africanists of the 1950s, the State was not a problem. Recaptured from colonialism, it could be made the means of raising African living standards to those of the developed world. Some even argued that state formation in Africa had occurred independently of European rule, that colonialism had been no more than an interlude in Africa’s long history. Faced with evidence of the widening gap between rich and poor nations, aggravated by the first oil crisis, the argument of the 1970s was that the State should be recaptured from the petit-bourgeois nationalists who were looting it for their own ends, and made to serve a revolutionary agenda. The claim of more recent studies, as diverse as Jean-Francois Bayart’s The Politics of the Belly (1989) and Basil Davidson’s The Black Man’s Burden (1993), is that the State is itself the problem. An alien imposition, owing nothing to African culture or skills, the ex-colonial African State with its constitutional, bureaucratic, educational and linguistic inheritance, is a violation of African history. Its disappearance, with the politics of “state-collapse”, need not be bad news.

Kole Omotoso’s Achebe or Soyinka? contributes to this debate with a fresh accusation. It has to be said that his book is flawed, riddled with inconsistencies and judgments that are patently untrue. He charges Achebe with refusing to write of the “middle” generation of Christian Nigerians whom, Igbo-fashion, he regards as “traitors”, preferring pre-colonial heroes or contemporaries. Can Omotoso have read Things Fall Apart, with its wholly sympathetic portrait of Mr Brown the missionary, and of Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son, alienated by his father’s rigour, appalled by the abandoned twins wailing in the forest, and lured irresistibly by the music of evangelism? For all his neo-traditionalism, Achebe is far too fair-minded a writer not to recognize the social and aesthetic reasons for Christianity’s success in Africa.

The contrast addressed by the title is the claim, much touted in Nigerian criticism, that Achebe writes “simple and easy to read” narratives which “the people” can understand, while Soyinka’s sophisticated obscurity is elitist and neo-colonial and designed to impress foreigners. Omotoso describes this as “premature and superficial”, noting that some oral forms, such as divination songs, can also be “obscure”. But having rejected one type of xenophobia as a means of contrasting Nigeria’s most distinguished writers, he sets up the equivalent charge that Achebe sees the world as an Igbo and Soyinka as a Yoruba and that neither has anything to say of northerners or of minorities.

Soyinka came to prominence young, and it is true that a few poems in his first volume are cluttered and dense. But what he demonstrated very early, especially in his plays, was a mastery of metaphor, of linked images unfolding until the moment when the drama is consummated and the whole radiates as myth. He has testified generously that he learned this studying Shakespeare with G. Wilson Knight at the University of Leeds. But this is also the main characteristic of the Yoruba ijala or praises (not just divination songs) which, with their wit and wordplay, their transcendental toughness and complexity, have always been Soyinka’s most immediate inspiration. It is Nigerians educated in the stilted bureaucratic English that passes for a national language who have trouble with this, not the so-called “masses” (nor indeed foreign audiences).

Yet Achebe or Soyinka? contains one central argument of troubling importance.

The first African writers, says Omotoso, were pan-Africanists. They were concerned with the liberation of the continent rather than of the territories defined by colonial boundaries. When, like Achebe and Soyinka, they turned to themes and images more authentically and explicitly “African”, they found their materials in their own backgrounds, making the transition from the pan-African to the local and the ethnic without pausing to consider the new “states” which were coming into existence. “Few African writers”, charges Omotoso, “have attempted to understand the kind of pressure that African politicians have had to bear.” By the time poets, dramatists and novelists discovered “the State” in the first years of independence, they were already concerned with its failures, writing their satires on incompetence and corruption. At the core of the “literature of disillusionment” were the very ethnic metaphors that were tearing states like Nigeria apart.

One of Omotoso’s examples is Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest (1967), included in the welcome reissue of his Collected Plays (though it is misleading of Oxford University Press to continue calling these “collected” volumes, when they contain nothing more recent than 1973). Kongi’s Harvest opens with a drum roll, coaxing the audience to rise for the national anthem, and then mocks them by raising the curtain and chanting instead the official praises of the Oba Danlola, the play’s hero, currently in detention. From this point on, two rival systems of authority are acted out. Kongi has the trappings of a national flag and anthem, an organizing secretary, Right and Left ears of state, a Five-Year Development Plan, a Carpenters’ Brigade of young thugs, a Women’s Auxiliary Corps, and a “reformed” fraternity of elders charged with the task of formulating the new philosophy of Kongism. Danlola has the religious authority of an Oba. The land’s fertility and the prospects for harvest are vested in him. He is associated with song, dance, warmth and a language rich in symbol – as well as (through his heir) with the city’s best nightclub and the new agricultural station. The marvellous thing about the play is the internal consistency of its harvest imagery, culminating in the moment when the year’s first yam is presented to Kongi who is supposed to sample it on the people’s behalf, but who passes it to an official taster in case it has been poisoned. These images are Yoruba in origin, invested with Soyinka’s favourite myth of Ogun, but the play is in English and entirely accessible.

The problem for African writers of the 1960s was not that they ignored the State – how could they when it was banning their works, or detaining them or dispatching them into exile? It was, rather, that everything to do with the colonial and ex-colonial states seemed utterly banal compared with the social and religious hierarchies they had supplanted. The argument of The Black Man’s Burden is already reflected in the literature of three decades back.

Soyinka denies that The Open Sore is a requiem for Nigeria, or that he wishes the federation to collapse into ever-diminishing components. The heart of his book is an extended survey of “national questions” in Europe, the Middle East, North America, Africa and the former Soviet Union. If this sounds absurdly ambitious, the fact remains that he pulls it off. His analysis of the predicaments of Kurds and Rwandans, Bosnian Muslims and French Canadians, Basques and Kuwaitis (not forgetting the “miracle” of Mandela’s South Africa), is an intellectual tour de force, enriched by his experiences as a traveller and his unfailing gift for language. Who but Soyinka, strolling through the market at Samarkand, would record “It did not require your tragic-romantic recollection of James Elroy Flecker’s verse play Hassan to make you aware you were plunged into a different culture”? Or, noting the Republic of Ireland’s periodic doubts about incorporating Protestants, would characterize the IRA as “a national longing that has nowhere to go”?

Acknowledging, with Omotoso, that for most Nigerians, Pan-African visions have contracted to the exigencies of salvaging the “colonial endowment”, Soyinka concludes with a sober and dignified statement of where he stands:

For the moment, I am able to claim that I accept Nigeria as a duty, that is all. I accept Nigeria as a responsibility, without sentiment. I accept that entity, Nigeria, as a space into which I happen to have been born, and therefore a space within which I am bound to collaborate with fellow occupants in the pursuit of justice and ethical life . . . I accept that space as a space of opportunities and responsibilities that must extend beyond its boundaries . . . I accept that space as one that is best kept intact.

In July 1994, Tai Solarin, the septuagenarian educationalist long known as the “conscience of the nation”, joined a march for justice organized by Soyinka with the words, “Ah Wole, I thought I would come and walk a step or two with you.” He died the following morning. Today, as he confronts his would-be executioners, Soyinka has more readers and admirers walking with him than he can possibly know.

First published Times Literary Supplement, 13 Junes, 1997.